The Trusted Executive: John Blakey

John Blakey is a UK-based author, speaker and executive coach. He just came out with a new book, The Trusted Executive. In this issue of Trust Matters, I chat with him about the book, and about his view of trust.

John, welcome to Trust Matters. You’ve got a new book out – The Trusted Executive. It’s your second book, right? Why did you write this book?

You could say this book is the story of my life! And hopefully, the story of all our lives at least in some part. It’s about how trust is lost and how trust can be regained.

I was reminded of this by the events of the global financial crisis of 2008-2009; a time when trust in ‘big business’ was lost and we all paid the price. A devastating event that jarred our notions of what we expect from executive leadership. Sometimes it’s helpful to forget the impact of such a breach of trust, to move on and to keep yourself busy. But other times we need to stop and think and learn the lessons we need to learn.

My own response was to first write a book called ‘Challenging Coaching’ with my colleague, Ian Day. The purpose of this book was to help the executive coaching profession learn the lessons it needed to learn from the global financial crisis. I then enrolled on an executive doctorate at Aston Business School in 2012, because I wanted to research the lessons that the wider world of business leadership needed to learn from the events of 2008-2009. This research path led me to the work on trust and I devoured the academic literature, before interviewing a host of CEOs on the topic of trust, including those in the UK, US, Europe and Asia. Gradually, my thoughts became clearer and ‘The Trusted Executive’ started to be written.

At the end of the day, I care about the reputation of business and it makes me sad that this reputation has been damaged in recent years. I have committed thirty years of my career to being a business leader, whether that be as the international managing director of a global multi-national or as an award-winning entrepreneur. Like many others, I came into business because I thought it was a force for good in the world. It seems we are at risk of losing that reputation and we need to show we care about getting that reputation back.

Excellent, thank you. I am aware, as of course are you, of the dwindling levels of trust in business these days. Say something about that?

The topic of trust has been brought to the fore by a number of recent events. Not just the global financial crisis I have just mentioned, but also the series of corporate failures and scandals that have occurred since 2008 – the events at FIFA, Volkswagen Group, Barclays Bank and BP.

Against this backdrop, the trustworthiness of business organisations continues to suffer. The 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer found that only one in five public respondents trusted business leaders to tell the truth and make ethical and moral decisions. Furthermore, only 43 per cent of respondents would trust a company CEO (compared to 62 per cent who would trust ‘someone like myself’.)

A recent paper from the Council on Business & Society summed up the mood when it stated ‘Society’s trust in corporations and their executives is dismally low, with the crisis in leadership fuelled by a relentless media cycle and a growing consumer influence through the global spread of information and viewpoints over the internet.’

Give my readers a quick story line of the book, if you would please?

The story goes like this:

In the old model of business, leaders worshipped profit and got things done through intellectual ability and authority. This worked to a degree and for a while. But transparency has broken the old model. Through globalization, diversity, technology and shifting demographics we now see through the opaque lives of organisations. As a result, we have lost trust in authority and lost trust in organisations and leaders who worship profit.

Authority as the glue of organizational life is no longer sufficiently ‘sticky’ to hold it all together. We need a new glue. The new glue of business of is partly a broader sense of purpose (results, relationships and reputation) and partly a deeper bonding of stakeholders through trust. Leaders need to take their trust-building skills to a completely new level if they are to create this new glue of 21st century business life.

Of course, the devil is in the details. What’s your view of how we do that?

Building trust is not as simple as delivering on your promises. I posit trustworthiness as ability x integrity x benevolence. For each pillar of trustworthiness, the book proposes three habits that modern leaders need to master. Typically, our understanding of trust has amounted to solving only 10% of the problem. Successful leaders will master all nine habits.

Some habits are familiar to us, such as choosing to deliver, to be honest and to be open. Others are more radical and challenging such as choosing to be morally brave, to be kind and to be humble.

Through these habits we will architect a new business model populated by trusted executives. This will be a model fit for diverse 21st century stakeholder of business and a model that will drive not just financial results but also inspiring relationships and a positive, long term reputation.

Give me a specific example, if you would? Say, a habit from the integrity section?

Under the pillar of integrity there are three habits – choosing to be honest, choosing to be open and choosing to be humble. If we take choosing to be open as an example, according to a 2014 survey of 1,600 managers in the UK by the Institute of Leadership & Management, openness is by far the most significant driver of trust. This finding was backed up by various CEO comments in my own research interviews such as ‘The first way to build trustworthiness is through open communication.

Consistent, open communication builds a belief that you are being told everything you need to be told’ and, ‘As a Chair going into a company, I get an instinct about the CEO. It’s really important what my gut feeling says about their trustworthiness. I’m testing it out all the time. I’m watching how open they are.’

But openness is not simply about telling the truth. Being open goes beyond being honest; it involves speaking the truth and then giving something more. Being open requires a leader to expose themselves and reveal some vulnerability. As Patrick Lencioni, puts it, choosing to be open involves ‘getting naked’.

In the book, I explore how leaders can show appropriate vulnerability and openness without undermining their credibility in front of their followers. At its root, this involves reframing their perception of vulnerability as a strength of the modern, 21st century leader who is focussed upon building trust rather than a weakness of the 20th century leader who was focussed upon winning battles regardless of the longer term cost to their underlying relationships.

What is your greatest wish for the book?

That it spark a debate in the boardroom regarding the role of trust in a modern business. I hope it will make CEOs and corporate leaders sit up and think again about their individual role in the trust-building challenge and so inspire them to commit to new habits for themselves and their organisations.

Beyond this, it would then be a bonus if the book’s impact leaks further outside the business realm into the worlds of education, politics, sports and parenting, where trust is also a key driver of success and sustainability.

I have a colleague in Slovakia who is writing a version of the book for 10-12 year olds which will convert the book’s messages into a parable for children based on the progress of a sports team competing in a handball tournament. I was initially surprised that he saw the relevance of the book to children, but then I suppose trust is something inherent to all successful relationships whatever your age or your profession.

How can the book help business leaders at a practical level?

It should help them to deliver outstanding results; inspire relationships; and leave a positive long term legacy.

I hope that after reading the book, business leaders will understand why trust is such an important driver of success, and why it is becoming ever more critical in a world where nothing can be hidden. The models in the book will help leaders translate this understanding into practical steps to improve their own trustworthiness and that of the organization as a whole.

On the one hand, this involves role-modelling specific behaviours on a day to day basis. On the other, it involves leading transformational change across the whole organization and instilling a culture of trust. It is both a micro and macro level challenge.

We also know that we all make mistakes. The book will help leaders recover from mistakes where trust has been damaged quickly and effectively through using proven coaching techniques that I’ve practiced myself and taught to over 120 CEOs across 22 different countries in my role as an executive coach.

If you could share only three insights about trust with a business leader what would these be?

First, I’d stress that trust matters. Whether you look at the academic research or listen to the front-line leaders, that it is clear. In 2002, Tony Simons and Judi Parks at Cornell University conducted a survey of more than 6,500 employees at 76 US and Canadian Holiday Inn hotels. They discovered that a one-eighth improvement in a hotel’s score on leadership trustworthiness led to a 2.5% increase in profitability. They concluded that ‘no other single aspect of manager behaviour that we measured had as large an impact on profits’.

Second, you cannot control trust. According to Rousseau, ‘Trust is a psychological state that comprises the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behaviour of another’. It is my psychological state and my decision. Whatever you as the leader thinks, says or does, you cannot force me to trust you. However, as a leader, you can influence my decision and what influences my decision is your level of trustworthiness.

Finally, trust and authority are not the same thing. In the past, we trusted people because we were told to trust them by people in authority. When you were a child, you watched the politician speaking on TV and you might have said, “he looks a bit shifty to me”, and, no sooner had the words left your lips, your mother would snap back, “But you should trust the politicians!” “Why mum?”, “Because they are politicians”.

That is how it used to work, but this model is breaking down. As part of my research into trust, I interviewed Ben Page, CEO of the market research company, IPSOS Mori. Ben told me that their surveys reveal the level of deference to authority is dropping with each successive generation. Today, he says, only 29% of us believe that those in charge know best.

Who inspires you as a trusted executive in the business world?

There are some great role models out there, but if I had to pick one it would be Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever. When it comes to ‘big business’, they don’t come much bigger. They have 172,000 employees, annual revenues of more than $50 billion and sell products in 190 countries.

When Polman was appointed CEO in 2009, he launched the company’s ‘Sustainable Living Plan’, which has since become a benchmark for triple bottom line thinking. The ‘Sustainable Living Plan’ aims to reduce Unilever’s environmental footprint and increase its positive social impact while also doubling sales and increasing long-term profitability. In 2014, a review of the ‘Sustainable Living Plan’ revealed the following progress:

  • Unilever’s ‘Sustainable Living’ brands accounted for half of the company’s growth and were growing at twice the rate of the rest of the business.
  • More than 55 per cent of Unilever’s agricultural raw materials were being sustainably sourced, more than half way to the 2020 target of 100 per cent.
  • CO2 emissions from energy and water in manufacturing had reduced by 37 per cent and 32 per cent per tonne of production respectively.
  • Unilever had improved the health and wellbeing of 397 million people; 40 per cent of the way towards its 2020 goal.

The punchline is that, in the same period, Unilever’s share price rose by more than 40 per cent! The story of Unilever under Paul Polman’s stewardship shows that a company can deliver results, relationships and a positive long term reputation in society as a whole. It is an inspiring story and I was privileged that Paul wrote the foreword to my book because I can think of no-one else who is currently ‘walking the talk’ as well as he does.


Thanks John for taking the time to share your thoughts.