“As long as you work for me, don’t you ever hold your tongue when you know that what is being said isn’t accurate or true,” my new CEO said to me across the conference table during the meeting, his eyes locking with mine.
The room seemed very small as everyone looked at me, the junior copywriter, as he continued, “I hired you because of your creativity and because you see things differently. Speak up. Don’t let them go down the wrong path.”
I just wanted to melt into the wall.
Here I am on my first job in advertising, and in my very first big meeting, I’m getting dressed down.
I deserved it.
I’d been sitting in this meeting, listening to people talking like they knew so much, but they hadn’t done their homework; they hadn’t studied the people they were trying to reach. They were so far off base, and I knew it, but I kept silent because some of these people had letters in front of their names like “CEO,” “ECD,” “EVP,” and others. I was a “lowly” copywriter.
And that was my mistake.
I took a deep breath and spoke my mind.
It’s all a haze to me — I said what the research had shown, and I countered the misperceptions with the findings. My CEO had emboldened me. I forgot the titles, and that I was the “new guy.” I couldn’t tell you a word I said, but I can tell you that once I finished, my CEO and ECD were smiling, and I wasn’t fired. I wish I could say I made a lot of friends that day. I didn’t, but my CEO and ECD were smiling. That’s all that mattered to me. And the work that came out of that meeting worked very well.
“That’s why you were in this meeting, why we hired you,” my ECD said. “Your portfolio showed that you see things differently, that you really think things through. We trust you to think about things.”
They trust me.
That changed my life.
Yeah, having someone trust you is a big thing. No, it is freaking huge! And let me tell you something about earning someone’s trust — it is freaking addictive! I would rather you trust me than like me. There’s something about having people trust you to speak or act from a position of what is the best or right thing to do, and not play politics or do what is convenient. Being trustworthy will very seldom make you popular.
Ever since then, I’ve had “trust issues.”
Earning trust sometimes requires saying things that are not positive. When someone is paying you, that makes it even harder, more complicated — ask doctors, lawyers, and accountants. People want advice, but they don’t always want to hear how things actually are. We’ve become a generation of “only tell me the positive.”
That is unrealistic in a business setting. Sometimes, we in marketing and advertising become aware of things that are not as great as a client would like, and before we can do our job, we have to address that. It isn’t a matter of being positive or negative, it is more a matter of doing what it takes to do our jobs right.
We should all want to be trustworthy. We need to be trustworthy.
However, there is no magic formula that will make you trustworthy. To be honest, I don’t believe there is only one way to become trustworthy. It is about how you behave in a relationship. I’m going to list some things I think you have to do to build trust.
Be respectful. You’ve got to respect those you are working with. This is more than lip service. Do you listen to them? Do you value their input? And if you disagree, do you avoid sarcasm and condemnation? You’ve got to recognize that you are part of a team, and each member has value.
Be wrong. It is easy to be right. We all have that down, but being able to take credit for your mistakes or being wrong shows strength of character; honesty. Taking responsibility for both the good and the bad shows that the outcome is more important than how you look to others. The strange thing is that by admitting your mistakes or wrongs, you will be seen as more truthful. Odd but true.
Be honest. It isn’t about you. It is about the work, and sometimes your idea, solution, or creative is not the best. Admitting that someone else has the answer is huge. It shows that you have your ego in check, and that you understand that what matters most is producing the best work. Being honest isn’t a license to be mean. Delivering bad or negative information is part of being honest, but you have to learn to do it in a manner that leaves a person his or her dignity. Start by being honest with yourself about who you are.
Be reliable. If you say you’re going to do something, then do it. You are part of a team; people are expecting you to deliver on what you say you would. Big or small — it doesn’t matter the size of the task — people notice when you fail to do the little things as much as they notice the large efforts. Sometimes the little things matter more than the large. Be careful. If you commit to doing something, be prepared to deliver.
Be a team player. Nothing says you can be trusted like looking out for the team. Stop with the use of “I” and embrace using “we” when talking about the work or project. Step in if you see a team member needs help. You may not be as good at the function, but people appreciate it when you offer to help, even if you are not as skilled at that task. If someone has to work late, going home once your task is done tells that person and anyone else paying attention that you are only concerned about you.
Being trustworthy is personal.
Being trustworthy is not for everyone. Not everyone is interested in being trustworthy. So, if you’re the only one trying to be trustworthy, be at peace with that. This is your career. You may not recognize the benefits today, but over the span of your career, you will. You’ll be surprised how often folks will seek you out because they understand that they can trust you. You’ll find clients solicit your opinions and thoughts more because they know that they can trust you.
Practice trusting folks, too. My friend Hilton Barbour said, “Your CEO went out on a limb by trusting you. Give people the benefit of the doubt and give them the license/opportunity to show that your trust isn’t misplaced. People (well, most of them) will surprise you…give them the opportunity/runway to show that you can trust them.”
As much as you need to be trustworthy, you need people in your life you can trust. (I have a small circle I trust to read my blogs before I post them — I trust their opinions.) It is great to have those one or two people who you can trust to tell how things are. This may seem hard to believe, but every idea you have will not be brilliant — shocking, but true. It helps to have someone you can trust to tell you so. It is great to be able to go to a person and get an honest answer or sincere advice.
People prefer to work with someone they can trust.
The best work is produced when you work with those who trust you, and you can trust them. Mutual trust creates an environment that fosters true collaboration and creativity; where ideas have the opportunity to grow. You and they don’t have to pretend. You’re free to express the really crazy or silly or strange thoughts without attitude and sarcasm. Never underestimate the value of that.
Warning: Remember that trust is fragile. Earning trust isn’t something you turn on and off to suit the meeting or situation or level of stress. Earning trust is something, like building brand equities, that is like small stones you collect over time — or can lose in an instant (More Hilton wisdom). Strive diligently to protect the trust you have earned.
We don’t talk about trust much these days, and for good reason. As an industry, we have stopped being trustworthy. Clients have told us as much. High employee turnover rates bear witness to it. Poor performance of advertising is a trademark of a lack of trust. We’ve got trust issues.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Moving the advertising industry back towards being trustworthy starts when each one of us asks the person we see in the mirror each morning a simple question: “Can I trust you?”
And the answer is “yes.”
Derek Walker is the janitor, secretary and mailroom person for his tiny agency, brown and browner advertising, out of the big city of Columbia, S.C. He is on Twitter as @dereklwalker.