Guest Blogger: Tom Ahonen has 35 years of experience in leadership roles and entrepreneurial ventures in consulting and management. He is currently the Managing Director for Heartland Equity Partners.
In your business journey, you will encounter many new situations along the way: a new company, a new department, a new team, or perhaps a new city or country. In each of these new situations, you have a choice on your starting point with your colleagues. You can choose to be wary, skeptical, or even suspicious. Or you can choose to give the benefit of the doubt and begin with trust.
In my journey, I’ve observed that most people want, in their heart of hearts, to feel like they’ve made a positive difference in their work. People generally want to feel like they’re contributing to something bigger than themselves. They want to feel like part of a team. They want to win. Sadly, leaders all too often manage to beat those altruistic traits into submission by heavy handed “supervision” and disrespectful behavior. But if we begin with trust, we set the stage for a win/win. Your colleague wins as they engage with the team and see their work as valued. The organization wins through an improved contribution by everyone and better results.
Years ago, as a young manager, I was transferred into a manufacturing operation where my predecessor was a talented engineer who knew the operation inside and out. He was deeply involved in directing the day-to-day, minute-to-minute line operation, even though it was a 24/7 operation with four manufacturing lines. But despite his talent and relentless work, the plant was performing poorly. There were streaks of impressive performance, followed by extended periods of awful results.
Fundamentally, the operating team had been transformed into “order takers.” Despite their own deep experience, the team had been conditioned to think that their ideas were not valued and that my predecessor would be calling the shots. As a result, there was little engagement, energy, or urgency when something went wrong and getting things back on track took time.
I did not have the engineering talent of my predecessor and was initially a bit overwhelmed by the task of leading the operation. Perhaps out of necessity, I approached my colleagues with a message of support. I asked them for their ideas on improving operations and what they needed to make it happen. Many team members had more than 20 years of experience. They knew how to run the line. They just needed to know I had their back and some help obtaining needed resources. I began with trust. And they took ownership of their lines and made them hum.
This transition also allowed me to focus on broad initiatives to improve safety, quality and productivity. The result was a plant that went from worst to first in operating results.
This and many other experiences have taught me to approach new situations with a strong bias for trust:
- Trust that people, regardless of their history in their work environment, want to be part of something bigger than themselves.
- Trust that people want to be part of a winning team.
- Trust that given the choice, people will try to do the right thing.
- Trust, and the "benefit of the doubt" endemic to it, can transform a culture.