Straight talk Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2009

A few years ago, when Mark Edmunds took the reins as vice chairman and managing partner for Deloitte LLP’s Northern Pacific region, he stood before all 4,000 of his employees with a single message for what they could expect of him.

“I wanted them to know that every day when I come to work, I’m going to focus on building trust,” Edmunds says. “Trust — when you think about it — it’s easy to say and it’s hard to earn. I told them that trust is the foundation of everything we do at Deloitte. If you build trust with your colleagues, you actually deliver better service to your clients.”

Over the last few years, Edmunds has lived out that mission of establishing trust by leading with a mindset that everyone matters, being straight with people and always listening.

“It’s all about living what you say, and it’s all about the actions that you take,” he says. “It’s providing leadership on it, so I really try to earn my colleagues’ trust every day when I come in.”

Here are some of the things Edmunds has learned about leadership through the years.

Don’t discriminate

Growing up in southern Virginia in the ’60s and ’70s, Edmunds saw that his father, a successful lawyer, treated people differently than others in town. One evening, his father had a cocktail party, and he invited a black couple to the party. When they arrived, he’ll never forget how three couples left the party and how people treated his father after that.

“He always lived that everyone matters,” Edmunds says. “He really instilled that in me, and I’ll never forget how some of the people in town treated him after that — as if he didn’t matter anymore. My whole life — my professional and my personal life — I try to live by this mantra that everyone matters.”

One way to do that is to not discriminate with whom you engage in conversation. For example, Edmunds will talk to the people who park his car in the garage, to the security people at the desk when he comes in and all the way up to the senior managers in the company. But beyond that, it also extends to the various offices he oversees. For example, he has 1,800 people in his San Francisco office. But if he goes down to Fresno, he only has about 30 people there.

“I try to make sure (the people in the Fresno office) understand that they matter as much to me as leader of this region as the partners here in San Francisco that serve the biggest accounts,” Edmunds says.

Edmunds uses a five-minute rule for his meetings to show people that he respects their time.

“Whether there are supposed to be 4,000 people on a call or four, within five minutes of when it’s supposed to start, I start it,” he says. “That doesn’t matter whether my CEO from New York is supposed to be on it and he’s not on it yet, I start it. Within five minutes of starting time, we run. That’s how you show respect to the people who showed up on time.”

All of his employees are well aware of this rule and respect it, just as they do all of the other rules related to this, such as no do-overs.

“So you start the call, and somebody arrives 15 minutes late, you don’t debrief them in front of several hundred people,” he says. “You talk to them later.”

Doing this shows his people that while some people may have higher titles, they’re not more important than anyone.

“I respect their time, and they trust that I’m going to run things on time and run things properly,” he says. “No do-overs. The message that sends is everybody matters. It doesn’t matter if the senior partner shows up late. Everybody is the same.”

Be straight with people

Another lesson Edmunds learned from growing up in a small town is that you can always leave your keys in your car or your front door unlocked. There’s no crime because everybody knows what you’re up to and won’t hesitate to tell you when you’re acting out of line.

“One of the things that’s instilled in you is to talk straight,” he says. “People there didn’t even know what a political agenda was, much less have one. So growing up in something like that, that’s built in to your soul, so when you talk to people and listen to people, you’re straight with them. … Talking straight with people and having no agendas is a really important character and leadership (trait) that all great leaders have.”

You can start with not sugarcoating a situation.

“I have to define reality and say, ‘You know what, it is tough, we’re in a tough market, and that is the reality,’” Edmunds says. “But then you also have to provide hope and a vision as to where it is you’re going to go: Hope that we’re going to be OK as a firm, and a vision to let everyone know that I can actually see around the corner of this recession.”

And while Edmunds strives to be straight with people, he expects the same back from them.

“If I ever ask them to do something that doesn’t help them more effectively mentor and coach and develop their people or more effectively serve their clients, I ask them to push back on me and don’t do it,” Edmunds says.

Nearly every day he’ll get e-mails asking him why the firm wants them to do something. Sometimes he’ll explain why it’s in their best interest to do it, and they’ll understand and buy in, but other times, their questions challenge him to be a better leader.

“There are other times when I will challenge myself or the firm to say, ‘Why are we doing this?’” he says. “When you’re a big organization, sometimes you can become a little too bureaucratic, and sometimes you have to challenge yourself to streamline and do things more effectively.”

The last way to be straight with people is to back their decisions.

“There’s no more powerful a statement you can make to someone around trust than, ‘You have my proxy,’” Edmunds says. “It’s a business term, but it’s really powerful. … Use that word. There’s no more powerful statement from a leader to someone else to say, ‘Wow, he really trusts me and is going to encourage me to make a decision on a really big issue.’”

But this is also not something you just say freely. In order to trust someone to make the right decisions, you have to truly believe in them.

“Building trust takes awhile,” he says. “It’s through several interactions. Trust you’re trying to earn with a client could take months and months and months of doing things that are valuable to that client, and over time, they could trust that you’re not there to sell them something every time you have a conversation. It could be years. It’s the same with your colleagues internally.”

He says you can start with smaller decisions, and once you learn their decision-making capabilities, you can give your proxy on the larger issues.

“There are times when you need to let them fall down a little bit on a decision that might not be as critical, but let them learn from that,” he says. “I guess the bottom line is it just takes a little time to spend with them before you’re comfortable doing it.”

Listen

One other way that Edmunds builds trust with his people is by listening to them.

“I think listening skills are the best thing you can have as a leader,” he says. “A lot of times, when you move up in a very senior position, you lose some of that, and there’s a lot of pressure to perform as a leader and to steer the business in a certain direction.”

One way to build your listening skills is to set up venues to hear what people have to say. Edmunds has a series of advisory groups that he’s established to do just that. For example, one is a group of Generation Y employees to give him a fresh perspective from the younger staff. He also has a senior manager group of people that have about eight to 12 years of experience and are one step away from being in the partnership. Then he also has a group made up of young partners in the firms. Each group meets with him quarterly.

“Having different constituency groups giving me input outside the normal chain of leadership is very important,” Edmunds says.

If you want to form your own advisory groups, it’s important to choose wisely who will sit on each.

“You want to look at the top 10 to 20 percent of your folks, because you want them to have the opportunity to have access to me in this informal setting so they can learn more about the firm,” he says. “They’re the future leaders of the firm. Usually, it’s the top performers in each of those categories. You simply look at the evaluations over a period of time, and if they have sustained high performance, I pick from them.”

He said it’s also important to make sure that as you select people, you make each group as diverse as possible, as well.

“I make sure there’s a good balance of men and women and a good balance of diversity, … ” he says. “Whatever we think would create a better team. It’s clear to us that diversity of thought and diversity of background in any kind of meeting or gathering you have helps you reach better answers.”

As you interact with these groups or even in your more regular meetings, it’s important to recognize that you don’t have all the answers.

“People (need to be) willing to check their ego at the door,” Edmunds says. “There are many people that rise in an organization and have a lot of the experiences and believe that they might have the answer before anybody else in the room does. Those are people that need to lean back in the chair and let everyone else talk and listen to them to see if there’s a better answer than what you came in with. … There are times when you want to lean in and times you want to lean out.”

It’s important to recognize when you need to do either of those.

“When you’re with a team and you want the team to get to a good answer for our people and for our client, lean out,” he says. “Let people talk about it, and let the group come to a decision versus leaning in and saying, ‘This is what I think the answer is,’ because then groupthink comes to that (decision) because you’re the most senior person in the room.”

By doing all of these things, you’ll develop a strong trust between you and your team, and that will translate through to all you do.

“There’s a difference between leading and managing,” Edmunds says. “If you’re trying to manage other people, you’re trying to get them to do things because you’re asking them to do it or requiring them to do it.

“But leaders inspire people to go in a different direction. Leadership is about inspirations. You can’t inspire people to do it unless you’re believable, unless you’re trusted, unless you’re straight with them, unless you have good listening skills, unless you convey to them that, in the end, it’s not about me as a leader. It’s about us being successful — successful in our organization, successful serving clients, successful giving back to the community.”

How to reach: Deloitte LLP, (415) 783-4000 or www.deloitte.com