All in this together Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2009

Mardi Norman says that trust is the cornerstone of being a good leader: You have to gain the trust of the members of your team, trust them and then get them to trust each other.

“If you can create a culture where everything is based on trust, it will help you succeed,” says Norman, president and CEO of Dynamic Systems Inc., an IT service provider and project management company.

Norman’s focus on creating a trusting culture among her 50 employees has helped her grow the company to 2007 revenue of $66 million.

Smart Business spoke with Norman about how to create that trust with your employees.

Q. How do you develop a trusting culture?

You have to remove any fear that if you make a mistake, there will be some type of consequence or penalty. Mistakes are going to happen, unfortunately, and if you create a culture where everyone just trusts that they can be upfront and honest and bring mistakes to light instead of trying to cover them up, then they know that the entire team is there to support them.

We’re all going to come together to fix it, instead of pointing fingers and putting blame on one another. Removing the blame and a feeling of fear that there will be a negative consequence, that helps to build trust.

Providing honest feedback is a cornerstone to trusting. If all the feedback you ever get is, ‘Oh, you’re doing a great job,’ and then all of a sudden someone finds themselves in a situation where something isn’t going right — ‘Well, wait a second, you’ve been telling me all this time I’m doing a great job, where’s the disconnect?’ It’s being honest and candid.

Q. How do you provide that honest feedback to your employees?

If it’s not something that has a timing issue, those are the types of discussions that can happen during performance reviews. A structured performance review is always a good time to provide that feedback, because it’s a structured situation and the individual is prepared to hear both positive and negative feedback.

But if it’s a situation that can’t wait for a formal performance review, then having the type of open relationship where you can call someone into a conference and sit down with them and let them know, ‘Here’s my observation. Here’s where we’re not quite on the same page, and your actions aren’t quite within the culture of the company, and here’s what we can do to rectify that.’

The most important thing is hiring the right people. If you invest the time to hire the right people, you can find that type of quality in an individual that you know will work well in your culture.

Q. How do you find the right people to fit in to your culture?

Invest the time. That’s key. People try to shortcut that whole process because it can be lengthy and time-consuming, but the biggest asset you have is people.

Investing the time to make sure you’re bringing the right person on board, it saves so many headaches down the road. Bringing the right people on allows you to maintain the type of culture that you worked so hard to establish.

A resume is great for analyzing someone’s skills, but skills are secondary. Those can be taught. It’s really about meeting the individual.

(It’s someone who has) the ability to be an independent thinker and strong judgment skills — individuals who are self-motivated and strong enough to be able to make a decision themselves.

I have them meet more than one person. And by having time with multiple individuals, hopefully if we’re doing everything right, we’re all on the same page and presenting the company story in the same fashion.

Q. How do you make sure you are reinforcing the culture and living it for employees?

Actions speak louder than words. I try to be the example of what our culture is. If I’m noticing we’re off track somewhere, I reinforce what is expected and give an example of, ‘We failed in this area, and let’s get back on track.’

Or the opposite — ‘Here’s an example of where we’re having great successes.’ Acknowledging people’s success feels good for the individual, but it also feels good for the group, because everyone wants to be part of a winning team, and sharing in people’s successes is a great way to feel like you’re part of that.

When you trust everyone, it’s easy to provide flattery and acknowledge what people did. You’re not feeling like, ‘I have to take all the credit, because if I give any credit to that other person, they’re going to take something away from me.’ There’s not that feeling of you’re going to lose anything. It’s all good. You can share and be open.

Q. What’s the benefit of having an open and trusting culture?

You have employees who are willing to go the extra mile for you. If they know you’re trusting them to make the right decisions and do an excellent job, they’re going to want to do an excellent job. It’s a motivator.