“Being trustworthy is about doing trustworthy things,” said Howard Sherman, CEO of Good360, an organization that has distributed about $9 billion in surplus products to people in need. Sherman’s point—that trust comes from keeping promises—may seem like something we all learned in kindergarten, but lately the leaders of several major corporations seem to have forgot the lesson.
Sherman was among the speakers at the From Day One conference in Brooklyn on June 19 on a panel focused on “Building (and Rebuilding) Trust in Your Company,” at a time when trust in big organizations is on shaky ground.
On the one hand, people tend to trust companies when they work with them at close range. In the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, a global survey, 75% of respondents said they trust “my employer” to do what is right, a higher rate than for business in general. On the other hand, trust-breaching actions by companies ranging from Boeing to Facebook to Wells Fargo have prompted rising scrutiny of corporate behavior. And Democratic Presidential candidates have seized the opportunity to turn up the heat.
Building trust needs to be a core value, since “trust is incumbent to buying,” noted the panel’s moderator, Damian Slattery, vice president of marketing at Fast Company. Slattery asked the panelists what it takes to create that trust among consumers, and the speakers tended to agree that it starts within the company, with employees trusting in their own organization.
Katherine Hand, global head of strategic communications on sustainability and social innovation at HP Inc. (formerly known as Hewlett-Packard), said that at a time when other technology companies have become notorious for mottos like “move fast and break things,” her company has made a virtue out of longer-term thinking. “HP is Silicon Valley’s ‘designated driver,’” Hand said. “We may not be the coolest, but we do things the right way.”
In HP’s case, the right way is a deliberate and coordinated effort to appeal to the side of employees and customers that wants consistency and continuity, Hand said. HP puts an abiding emphasis on diversity and inclusion, an area where Silicon Valley companies often struggle to make progress.
HP is actively tackling the issue of plastic waste, including the growing concern around ocean plastic. On the day of the conference HP was issuing a Sustainable Impact Report, noting that they've upcycled about 700,000 lbs. of ocean-bound plastic in the last two and a half years.
Colleen Devery, vice president of strategy for NAF, said her organization runs on trust because it relies on cooperation among leaders in education, business and communities to help high-school students—particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds—to be ready for the workplaces of the future.
Devery said that their students need to develop a bond of trust with NAF employees, who operate academies within traditional high schools, before they can be expected to trust their mentors at the paid internships the company finds for them. “Kids make mistakes all the time,” Devery noted. Her organization teaches them to “own up to their mistakes and be transparent” about why things happened the way they did. The point is to teach young people accountability, and have them expect it in others, including the big organizations they will encounter in life..
Sherman, whose organization assists in the redistribution of excess goods from companies including Amazon and Walmart to non-profits, took the idea of trust a step further in suggesting that the most beneficial dynamic is what he called mutualism. In that kind of situation, “everybody in the stakeholder ecosystem benefits,” Sherman said, which “works better than altruism,” in which a participant’s motivation for doing good might not be as clear.
What happens when there’s a breach of trust that tarnishes a company’s image?
Hand said that it is important for companies and organizations to show that they are taking action to correct a mistake not just because they “got caught,” but because they hold a collective belief within the company that it is the right thing to do.
Sherman added that difficult situations for companies can actually be good opportunities for them to build stronger relationships with their ecosystem. “The thing that makes you stand out is doing trustworthy things during challenging times. That’s the best opportunity to build trust,” he said.
Some companies have succeeded in fostering trust by allying with social-media influencers. “Institutions tend to disappoint us,” Sherman observed. “Influencers are an extension of the peer-to-peer relationship, and we trust peers more than we trust institutions.” But there is risk involved. Influencers can fail when they are inauthentic or too opportunistic.
A similar risk presents itself when companies take a stand on such political hot-button issues as LGBTQ rights, gun ownership and abortion. Should a company take a stand one way or the other? Will that stand cost them customers? Will it bring more in? Should it matter?
“For us it’s critical to think about how it is authentic to our business,” Hand said. She advocated that companies can take a stance on a divisive issue if their stance accurately reflects past company behavior and stated goals. If the stance runs counter to that, they can risk the backlash of being viewed as opportunistic and insincere.
Sherman concurred, citing the example of Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO Ed Stack, who after the Parkland high-school shootings in Florida had his stores remove all assault-style weapons from their inventory and mandated a 21-year minimum age for purchase of any firearms. The decision was controversial, but Stack maintained that the position was consistent with the company’s advocacy in favor of gun-safety measures.
After all the talk of trust-building, Slattery concluded the discussion by stating that he had never met any of the participants before the panel, but now was inclined to trust them with “my children, my dog and my career.” A moment of levity, no doubt, but their candid and transparent answers to his questions must have had an influence.
In fireside chats and breakout sessions following the panel, Hiren Shukla of EY talked about unlocking the talent of today through neurodiversity; Katie Coupe of BetterUp spoke about the human side of business transformation; Héber Manual Delgado-Medrano and Jenic Mantashian of BVA Nudge Unit USA conducted a workshop on simple behavioral nudges that turn intention into action; and Zac Stein of Lattice spoke about the uncomfortable art of giving feedback.
Patrick Smith has written for NBC.com, the New York Daily News, and TheUptowner.org. He was a producer for the 2016 Olympics coverage at NBC Sports and a field producer for New York 1 News. He’s a graduate of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and has an MA in international relations from Johns Hopkins