I’ve been on losing teams and high-performing ones both in the NFL and in the business world, and the common thread of success is trust. This is not a new concept. Most of us understand why trust is important but we don’t always know how to build it amongst teams comprised of people with different backgrounds, perspectives and, often, personal goals.
I’ve asked myself this question ever since the Philadelphia Eagles drafted me in 2006. For two years, I lived almost every day of my life at the NovaCare Center in downtown Philadelphia with the Eagles. On paper, we had one of the most talented football teams in the NFL. Donavan McNabb was in his prime, Brian Westbrook was an MVP-caliber running back and Brian Dawkins anchored a defense that was filled with pro bowlers.
So why didn’t we ever get past the second round in the playoffs? In my opinion, we lacked trust. Most players questioned the management’s fear-based motivational tactics. On a daily basis, we’d hear coaches say “If you don’t do XYZ better, we’ll find somebody else who will.”
Granted, every pro football player knows that the NFL stands for “not for long,” which naturally gave all of us a dose of productive paranoia. However, hearing it every day led to a locker room full of great individual athletes all operating on their own islands.
In 2008, I joined the Pittsburgh Steelers, where I learned what a trusted, champion locker room felt like. Mike Tomlin, the head coach in Pittsburgh, was the most trusted leader that I had ever been around. Rather than motivating with fear, he inspired the team with a sense of familial trust and honesty that is rarely found in any professional sport. The team went on to win the Super Bowl that year.
Fast forward to 2010 and I moved into the tech startup world. I co-founded Integrate, a marketing-software company helping world-class teams at companies such as Dell, HP, Amazon and Tipco automate their ability to acquire new customers. Over the last four years the business has grown very quickly, generating more than $100 million in revenue.
Today, there are few things that I am more focused on than using the lessons that I learned in the NFL and at Integrate to foster trust amongst my team -- trust that encourages individuals to take big risks, aim high when setting goals and enjoy the people they work with. If you’re passionate about building more trust into your culture, here are four ideas worth considering.
1. Have a “No A**hole” policy -- with no exceptions.
We have five cultural pillars at Integrate and one of them is humility. There are 30,000 days in our life if we are really lucky. Our time is too precious to be spent working with disrespectful people who belittle ideas, are constantly defensive, never take personal responsibility and bring down the moral of a team. Quickly identify these people and do everyone a favor, help them find a new home.
2. Make transparency your default.
Sugarcoating is for cookies, not for building trusted relationships. There is no better way to build trust than to be open and forthcoming with your team.
Leaders often feel uncomfortable sharing bad news because of their responsibility to inspire. However, the optimism delusion never works. I’d rather have 10 percent of my team walk out the door after I share bad company results than pretend everything is perfect. We’ve almost failed twice at Integrate. However, the only way that we got through it was by locking arms as a team and focusing only on the areas that were going to help our chances of survival.
A trusting organization doesn’t hold back on transparency, and neither do we. After every board meeting we have an all-hands meeting bringing together all employees to go over every slide of our board-meeting deck, highlighting the good, bad and the areas that need more effort.
3. Make it OK to fail.
Thomas Edison said it best when describing his process of inventing the light bulb: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Every great idea goes through several iterations. The best entrepreneurs are the ones who remain level-headed through the inevitable ups and downs of scaling a company. Failure is not a means to the end but rather a great opportunity to learn and grow.
As I learned in Philadelphia, if you consistently focus a team on the negative impacts of failing it will paralyze creativity and trust. No person or product has ever reached greatness without taking big risks and experiencing periodic moments of failure.
4. Celebrate the people who take personal responsibility.
Another cultural pillar at Integrate is personal responsibility. I grew up in a family where if I told my mom and dad the truth, I’d never get in trouble. I find it inspiring to work with people who have enough confidence and humility to take ownership of their mistakes. There are few things more draining to team morale than working with someone that always points the finger and can never take personal responsibility. I have found those people to be completely cancerous to productivity.
Build a team around your values first and the candidate’s competencies second. A good culture fit is not a like to have, it's a must have. The best relationships in life and business are built from authenticity and vulnerability, the two most important ingredients in trust.
Fall on the sword, admit mistakes and be self-aware enough to acknowledge your blind spots -- the right people will lean into that kind of leadership and want to follow. Encourage people to challenge your ideas and also care deeply about their ability to learn and grow. There is no better way to foster and maintain trust while having a lot of fun with your teammates building a great business.