How many of us struggled with this in our careers? Whether in the military or civilian lives, our role as leaders is to influence our team to row in the same direction to achieve common goals -- and that’s only built through trust.
For me, building this trusting environment is easier said than done. I’ve had my “battle scars” from my attempts (and failures) in building trusting team environments, from which I’ve learned considerably. Things were especially difficult during my transition from leadership in military to the civilian sector. What’s impacted me most, however, has been my opportunity to model those who have successfully led me throughout my career.
When I was a new Special Forces officer, I got to my first unit in Washington and assigned to an “A-team” to lead a group of experienced, lethal Green Berets in missions world-wide. These “A-teams,” or Operational Detachment- Alpha (ODA) teams, are the ones who actually conduct the mission on the ground. We are the ones who deal with the local population, solve the tough daily problems, and fight the enemy. We were the portfolio companies running the day-to-day operations, the product teams owning our own brands, or the sales teams operating within our territories.
The ODA’s are supported by a Operational Detachment- Bravo (ODB) teams that provide us with the logistics and operational support to execute our missions. They are the mother-ship that sustains us with food, water, and ammunition (and gives approval) to execute our operations. The “B-team” is actually consisted of a higher-ranking Special Forces officer and Sergeant Major, who have successfully led their ODA teams in the past. They are also our bosses and sounding boards.
During my first few meetings with my boss and senior-ranking officer, I remember him telling me, “Freddie, we are here for you. We support your team’s efforts and successes. Let us clear the path and enable you to do what your team needs to do, to win.”
Now, having your boss say this is meaningful in itself. To build trust with us, he first trusted us. He gave us autonomy and the authority to make the calls on the ground. There are numerous times when circumstances are different from what “higher headquarters” perceives and what’s actually happening real-time. But that’s not all, my boss actually followed through; he built trust with me.
In one instance, a relatively high ranking person complained about me. It was a decision the team made that was unfavorable with this individual, and he took it upon himself to back channel his way to my boss. Though not a life-threatening scenario, it was a decision that impacted a larger group of people and had strategic second and third-order effects on our operations. The guy knew people; he had clout; he had influence. And he wanted a different outcome.
My boss called me on the satellite phone and asked me what we had intended with our decision. After our discussion, he said, “Ok. I got your back. Go execute.” That’s it. He had heard why we made the call, after the hours upon hours of mission planning and area analysis, and he empowered us to stick to our guns. Though ignoring this individual’s complaint had ramifications on my boss himself, he took a stand to stand with his men. My boss didn’t have to remind me of the ramifications this would have on him personally -- he knew this was the right decision for the situation.
In order to build a trusting environment, first, give trust to your people. Give them the benefit of the doubt that they did their homework and made the right call for the organization. Give trust to gain trust. You don’t have to add your two cents in every situation and undermine your team leaders. Then put money where your mouth is, and empower your people to execute accordingly.