For weeks now, Twitter and Elon Musk have been dominating the headlines. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, and the subsequent layoffs that followed, have been shaking the ground in Silicon Valley. Even beyond the mass layoffs, his tenure as the company’s leader is off to a rocky start. An attempt to monetize the blue verification check mark ended up causing more problems than it solved. Users abused the system by impersonating major brands, which caused significant market disruptions for some of Twitter’s biggest advertisers.
Most recently, Musk issued an ultimatum to Twitter employees requiring them to commit to the intense working conditions that his new Twitter will demand or take severance and leave. This move, along with the recent layoffs, come at a particularly bad time, as the holiday season is right around the corner. The holiday season is traditionally a time when layoffs are off-limits—at least, when it can be helped. Many companies are winding down or pausing hiring until the new year. Holding people’s jobs over their heads, especially now, is an unfortunate example of toxic leadership. Twitter’s employees seem to agree, with many making an exit in response to the ultimatum in what is being called a “mass exodus.”
As I have watched this new saga at Twitter unfold, I’ve been reflecting on what defines great leadership. Musk has a proven history as a tenacious and capable business leader. While his public image has been polarizing, it’s hard to argue against the growth that Tesla and SpaceX have achieved over the years. He has previously proven himself as a successful leader, but is he a great leader? If not success, what is it that makes a leader great? To me, the answer is simple; the foundation of great leadership is the ability to trust and be trusted.
Trust is everything
After decades of leadership positions within some of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies, I recently took on the role of CEO for the first time. The level of professional commitment and personal dedication it takes to lead an entire company is humbling. It’s certainly not something you can do by the seat of your pants. As a first-time CEO, I knew I had to get this right. To do that, I knew my first step would have to be to build trust with all of the company’s stakeholders and to understand everyone’s needs and motivations.
Right out of the gate, I wanted to visit each of our call centers and get to know employees. I also made it a point to personally email the leaders of our client companies to introduce myself and ask for their feedback. I wanted everyone who would be working with me to know who I am and what I’m all about.
On the employee side, this was especially important to me. The company I lead, Televerde, has a strong purpose-driven culture, and a mission to provide 10,000 employment opportunities to currently and formerly incarcerated women over the next decade. That’s because seven of our 10 call centers are staffed by incarcerated women, accounting for 70 percent of our global workforce. I needed them to know that I had every intention of upholding Televerde’s mission and would not be making changes just to make changes. So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
What happens when leaders can’t be trusted?
Looking at the Twitter situation, it seems that Musk assumed he would be able to step into Twitter and immediately apply the same principals that have worked for his other businesses. That assumption has not worked out favorably so far, as he likely did not fully consider the difference in ethos between Twitter and his other companies.
From an outside perspective, it’s clear that Musk did not take time to build trust with stakeholders. He started making changes without substantial input from Twitters employees, users, or advertisers. As a result, those stakeholders are leaving in droves. And while Twitter is an extreme example of what happens when trust breaks down (or ceases to exist), it’s certainly not the only example, just the most recent.
To inspire trust from others, leaders need to also demonstrate trust. To address the business side of change, leaders need to leverage strengths and build commitment across their organization and with stakeholders. And to address the people side of change, leaders need to connect with people emotionally and model resiliency, curiosity, and empathy.
Employees who don’t trust their leaders are likely to underperform as they plan an exit from the organization. There is no incentive to innovate if employees don’t believe what you tell them. This isn’t what you want as a leader, as it doesn’t create an environment that allows your organization to thrive.
How to build trust
As an outsider looking in, I don’t want to imply that I have the answers to the Twitter situation. I’m not sure that anyone could have stepped into Musk’s shoes and created a perfect path forward. In fact, I feel like I’m learning new leadership lessons every day. But I do want to share the advice I’ve found valuable and what has always worked for me.
- Don’t leave out the “why.” Just because the path forward makes sense to you, doesn’t mean that it will to others. Give your people the information, direction and support they need to succeed. Empower employees to ask questions, communicate the impact of your decisions, and help people understand what makes change necessary.
- Leadership leaves no room for ego. You can’t just assume that you’re correct just because you’re in charge. While decisions are ultimately up to you, giving your stakeholders the opportunity to provide feedback and voice concerns makes people feel heard. While you’ll never be able to make everyone happy, it’s important for people to know their voices are valued.
- Demonstrate appreciation. As leaders, we must be intentional about creating an environment of appreciation. A company can’t function well on its own. Success starts with our people. We should always be re-recruiting our talent internally, keeping everyone engaged through gratitude and appreciation.
- Be authentic. Your people can’t trust you if they don’t know you. Authentic leaders remain true to themselves and their values even in the face of adversity. The leaders that inspire the most trust show up in the same way, every time, because they operate from a place of total honesty. People are smart – they know when you’re faking it.
While these four tips are not an exhaustive list of ways for leaders to build trust, they are the things I have found to help me the most. And we head into a period of economic uncertainty, it’s more important than ever for leaders to inspire trust within their organizations. Many leaders have proven themselves to be successful, but now is the time for us to prove that we can be great – for our employees, our organizations, and the customers we serve.