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The Harder Work: Reputation Management and Trust Building

We continue the series on the “harder work” of leadership — important but not urgent responsibilities that are easy to put off, in some cases for decades. In this installment, we’ll examine the responsibility of owners and senior leaders to incessantly enhance their organization’s reputation, refusing to believe it will stand untarnished without constant attention.

Most often we think of reputation as being the opinions that people on the outside of an organization hold. Just as important, however, is how people inside the organization feel. Most leaders are aware of the dismal statistics around employee engagement. Across sectors, almost half of the American workforce do just enough to not get fired — a direct reflection of how they feel about their employer.

A simple way to understand reputation: It’s the sum total of decisions made and promises kept. Imagine you have a trust account. Just like a bank account, you have to pay attention to the balance. Are you making more deposits than withdrawals, in both personal and business relationships? Everyone knows the misery of being in a cash crunch. Being in a reputation crunch is in many cases an even greater concern.

Think of how you express your opinions about those with whom you do business. “Their word is their bond.”

“I can count on him to do the right thing.” “They will make it right.” Or, “Will he follow through this time or not?” “Better get it in writing.”

In smaller organizations, a company’s reputation is usually closely tied to the integrity of the owner or senior leader who makes most of the deals. Every decision he or she makes enhances or hinders that reputation. Most leaders understand this intuitively.

Because this responsibility feels so heavy, many hoard it, unintentionally become the bottle neck. This creates an organizational structure known as “a genius with a thousand helpers” where all decisions must pass through a single person. While that might feel efficient for a while, it creates major headaches when you experience significant growth.

Any time your people are second-guessed, overridden by their boss or asked “What did you do that for?” they are being trained to not make decisions. And it inevitably creates resentment for a leader who feels he or she has to make all the big decisions.

A more effective approach is to create a model for decision-making through alignment with your core values. I’m not talking about the generic, table stakes values on the poster in the lobby that every other competitor in your market also claims to hold. I’m talking about those next level values that define your truest value proposition.

When everyone is empowered to make values-driven decisions and promises to external clients and internal staff, anchored in the bedrock of what you stand for, reputation becomes incredibly stable. That trust account grows and grows because everyone is making deposits.

You can then weather the inevitable withdrawals that may happen through no intentional breach of trust. And if you’re the owner or senior leader, you can sleep better because you’re not carrying the entire burden on your own back.

Ron Magnus
Ron Magnus

Ron Magnus, managing director of FMI’s Leadership and Organizational Development Practice, with Tim Tokarczyk, partner.