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7:00pm EDT February 23, 2010

Believe Doug Schneider when he says he knows what trust looks like.

Prior to joining Genea Energy as CEO, Schneider was in charge of an acquisition strategy at Verio Inc., which required him to integrate more than 60 companies, many of which were competitors. Besides coordinating the business and operational issues, he helped employees of rival companies form working relationships.

When dealing with constant change, as many companies are, there is one ingredient that can’t be overlooked, says Schneider. That is trust.

“Building trust is very critical,” he says. “If you do not have trust with your executive team, with the management, with the employees throughout the company, it’s very hard to manage change. It’s also hard to communicate effectively if you don’t have a foundation of trust.”

Schneider now uses that lesson while leading his 62 employees at Genea, a provider of energy consumption optimization services for commercial office building owners.

Smart Business spoke with Schneider about how to build trust among your employee base.

Reach all employees. A lot of it is just being honest and open with people. I think that’s one of the most important things. Also, it’s really about communicating. These things are interrelated.

To the extent you need to drive that open communication at the executive level, you want to drive that down throughout the ranks of your employees. You do that by going out into the field with your employees.

Say you have field employees who are out serving clients. Periodically, I like to get out in the field with them so you can get an understanding from their perspective of what’s going on. You start to build that trust with employees at different levels within the organization.

If you can, do a combination of these one-on-one interactions, smaller group interactions and even large group interactions — every quarter, we try and do an all-associate town-hall meeting.

Communication is not a one-legged stool — it’s something that takes on a lot of different contexts and processes.

Maintain clarity. You have to have a perspective as a CEO that you’re honest and open with people, and when there’s uncertainty, you try to bring clarity.

Even sometimes when you can’t bring clarity, you still tell people what you do know and what the situation is or what the issues are.

For a lot of companies, the past 12 months have been very trying times with what’s called ‘The Great Recession.’ We ourselves as a company, over 12 months ago, went through a reduction in force where we started to downsize part of the company. That starts to create uncertainty for people.

When you start to take an action like that as a company, and then it’s kind of combined with the macroeconomic environment, which itself has created a lot of uncertainty in this case, you have a lot of people saying, ‘Is my job (safe)? Am I next? What’s going on in the company? Is the company going to have further reductions?’

What we did in that case was explained to people why we did this, what the rationale is, how we kind of arrived at some of the decisions. Talked to them about the future health of the business, where things were going well in terms of sales and where things weren’t maybe going as well, and talk about milestones and metrics that we’re trying to drive to.

Sometimes the clarity means not letting rumors take on a life of their own, which means getting in front and getting comfortable talking with people about things that are creating some uncertainty. If you’re the CEO saying, ‘You know what? I understand there’s uncertainty about this.’

Hopefully, you can bring clarity and sometimes you can’t. Sometimes people just want to know that, ‘Hey, we’re working this issue through.’

Listen clearly. To be an effective communicator and start to be open, you have to listen to people first. Be authentic in how you listen to them before you maybe respond to them or disagree with them.

Part of it is building an environment where you actually encourage employees to challenge your thinking. When you do that and actually take in that new information and change decisions that have been made or go down a new path, I think that reinforces to people in the organization that you’re a company that does take feedback from employees to heart. That builds that openness and that trust.

A lot of it starts at the top. It is about how you carry yourself as an executive. I encourage my direct reports to challenge my thinking. Then, the idea is that they likely encourage the folks that report to them to challenge their thinking.

You have to practice what you preach. Go out and really seek that interaction with people in your organization. You can’t be an executive that gets comfortable sitting inside your four walls.

Gauge whether employees trust you. You start to know it when you get a sense that they are starting to challenge, in a constructive way, decisions that get made that they don’t think are the right decisions or their willingness to ask a tough question and not be worried about asking that tough question.

When you start to see two-way interaction, that is a sign that you actually are building up trust, and I also think that sometimes it’s one of those things where you just have a sense of it.

Let’s say there’s something important that the company needs to get done in a short period of time dealing with an unexpected customer issue or there’s some new sales opportunity that just came down but it’s going to require the involvement of a number of different folks from the organization.

When you start to see people rally together in almost a self-initiated team environment, I think that’s indicative that you’re building not just this trust inside the company, but that’s evolving to enthusiasm for people to really try to do what they can do for the greater good of the company.

How to reach: Genea Energy, (714) 694-0536 or www.geneaenergy.com