Building Trust

Gary Flanagan spent eight years as Director of Leadership Development for a major manufacturing corporation, when he was assigned to the Manufacturing Center and asked to implement the theories he had developed there. For Gary, being assigned to manufacturing was a surprise, but he knew it offered him a chance to promote his vision for stewardship: that leaders are there to support and make their people more successful.

What Gary found in manufacturing, however, was a work force that had lost its ability to trust. The workers (many of whom had been in their position 20 years or more) had watched a string of managers come and go through the years, each with a new idea of how to “improve” things. The truth was, they knew more than their bosses, and merely came to tolerate them, knowing the machine would spit out another before long.

Additionally, Gary discovered efficiency measures that had been implemented before he arrived. Jobs that used to be covered by two people were now being covered by one. When workers retired or left for other jobs, no new employees were brought on. They simply had to make do, and they were overwhelmed. Things took a turn for the worse when their product started having a tough time in the market. Gary realized: if HQ was going to close down a factory, it was going to be this one.

He told me: “the way manufacturing was working was a surprise to me. There was no real communication.  I decided to go on the floor to meet people. Learn their names.  Then I started asking questions. ‘What do you need? What’s getting in your way?’ I spoke to Reg, a Team Leader, a guy with a perpetual frown on his face, wary. He was so used to people telling them ‘do this’ he didn’t trust I was serious. –‘What do you need?’ I kept asking. It turned out he didn’t have an answer—because no one had ever asked him that. I must have tried it a half a dozen times. ‘What do you need? How can I help?’”

“Finally, I’m down on the floor one day, and there was a big jam up in the filter reservoir. You have to knock them all out on the floor and start over. Anything on the floor has to be thrown out. Reg was up on the ladder and started knocking things down. I started scooping things up and putting them in the bin. He came down and asked what I was doing. He was sort of gruff about it. I told him: I can’t just stand here. My job is to support you, and in this moment in time, this is supporting you. What else would I be doing? He stopped cold and gave me the funniest look. He said, ‘you are the first manager I have ever seen do that’. I told him: this is just how it needs to be.”

“I asked him one more time: what do you need? Tell me what’s getting in your way so that you can safely and efficiently make quality products for us. He was taken aback. Finally he got that I meant it. And for the first time, he answered—with specifics. Because he knew the things that had been going wrong, and had ideas what might work better. Now he believed someone might listen. Over time, I did my best to implement them, and eventually I won him over. He actually became an advocate. He brought me other Team Leaders so I could talk to them.”

“What I realized is that it was only because of the trust I built with him first that this happened. That’s why he brought me other Team Leaders. This is how it happens: if you develop a sense of trust and respect with people before you deliver content, that connection drives everything that happens after.”


What was so fascinating to me, hearing Gary retell his story, was that it wasn’t just the impact on Reg and his group that affected Gary—but how it changed and affected Gary’s own work. The whole experience helped Gary realize his own impact on the culture and his part in helping create and lead it.

I started thinking: we all know how we get entrenched, how we find ourselves in ruts with low expectations, buried in “this is how it’s always done.” What’s not so clear is how we get out. Gary blazed a great path toward change: connect to the people before delivering new content. He knew the people who had been in the job 20 years knew more than he did, and that listening to them could help him solve problems. Simply by asking what his people needed before he told them what they needed changed the tenor of their relationship. Before he held the job, asking people their names and what help they needed was not the norm.

Moreover, Gary’s authenticity helped drive the change. He realized if he wanted to communicate a new way of working, the lines of communication had to be opened first. Gary not only set expectations, he followed them. He led by example, and gained the trust of his workers. In turn, the employees led each other. Because Gary found a way to translate his original idea: stewardship. Leaders are there to support and make their people more successful.

So what resources are around you all of the time that you don’t recognize? Have you looked, or are your expectations so entrenched that they’re getting in your way of what actually exists?

Ask yourself: are you behaving like the 20 years of leaders that came before Gary, or are you setting a new path, looking around, and seeing what resources you have?

What are you missing?


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Winter Solstice

I don’t know about you, but for me, the ever shortening daylight that accompanies this time of year is a drag.

A drag to get up and out while it’s dark. A drag to leave work and find it’s dark out again.

And today is the worst of all – only nine hours and eight minutes of daylight.

But tomorrow, ever so slightly, we get more.

And the day after that, and the day after that until on June 21st we will have a total of fifteen hours and six minutes of daylight. A full six hours and five minutes more than today.

It’s the corner I always wait to turn this time of year, and we’re making the turn today!

That simple thought makes me happy. I hope it does you as well.

May the coming year bring you and yours light filled days and moonlit nights.

Our best regards,

Mitch, Melanie, Jenn & The Breakthrough Gang.

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Could This Happen Today?

I was talking to one of our favorite clients the other day.  She’s a member of this elite group for a number of reasons; she’s smart, talented, generous, a life-long learner who’s fiercely committed to her people and their development, an authentic leader.

She shared a funny ‘teachable moment’ story with us.  I was struck by the quality of character demonstrated in her story and asked if she would allow me to share it here.  Not surprisingly she said ‘Yes, but only if you don’t use my real name.”

So for the purposes of this blog entry, let’s call her Elizabeth Burrows.

It was 1966. Elizabeth Burrows, a young professional woman, who had moved from New York to California, was having a hard time. Having landed the job as the first female Production Editor for a monthly auto magazine, she was facing some of the historical gender bias of the time. The Managing Editor had just quit, no replacement had been named, and a new Publisher was coming in. “A hard-ass,” Elizabeth heard, “Legendary.” To add to the chaos, Elizabeth was having issues with the writers (all male) meeting deadlines.  Given all of this, Elizabeth was sure that as soon as the new Publisher took over, she would be fired.

“Bets were being taken about how soon I’d get the boot,” she said. “So I did everything the best way I knew how. I cut down overhead – I was the first person who did that. For two weeks I kept asking for the over-due articles.  No one cooperated. The issue’s deadline was looming, and the writers still hadn’t turned in their stuff. So the night of the deadline, I asked the custodian to lock the door at 5pm, and not open it until I told him to. The writers bitched and moaned. But by midnight, they had all finished their manuscripts and were free to go home. The message was clear: “Deadlines are real. And this will be our weekly process until the manuscripts show up on time.”

A week later, the new Publisher showed up. He called Elizabeth into his office. She was sure it was her D-Day. But before she said anything, this “legendary hard-ass” pulled out a business card with her name on it – and ‘Managing Editor’—underneath. He told Elizabeth, “I don’t care if you’re blue, green, red or purple. I need someone to get the magazine out on time and you are doing it. The day you aren’t, you won’t have the job anymore.”

“When he announced it,” Elizabeth told me, “you should have seen the jaws drop.”

I asked her what it was like in the office after that. “Surprisingly,” she said, “I became good pals with many of the guys. We used to have drinks after work. I learned from them what some of their challenges were. They learned from me some of the business issues. In fact, they would even ask me to come along on some of the stories they were covering. It became a very nice working relationship.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Elizabeth’s story the last few weeks, and the value of taking personal responsibility for your work, and doing the right thing – not just the easy thing. Elizabeth could have covered for her writers, but instead she held them to higher standards – making them complete their jobs and fulfill their commitments – even if that meant she had to lock the doors to make sure promises were kept and budgets met. She helped those men see they were responsible for the success of the business too, not just upper management. She thought she was risking her job. Instead, she was rewarded for it.

“Ultimately, I think if you make a contract, you have a personal responsibility to fulfill it. Not just me, but everyone, at every level. You have to operate under the idea that you are responsible for your career. You are responsible for your own destiny.”

How many of us operate this way? Do we stand up to make sure challenges are met, or do we make excuses for why the work doesn’t meet the highest standards possible? What is our responsibility for the culture we are creating—intentionally or unintentionally—by the attitudes we bring? Would we be willing to risk our positions to make the work better? Would we have the confidence and courage to put it all on the line, the way Elizabeth did when she was first making her way in the business world? If not, why not? What’s standing in our way?

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I recently learned about a web site devoted to people whose home mortgages are ‘under water’ and want to walk away from the obligation. It’s called

The site refers to this process as “Strategic Default” and offers guidance on the legality and mechanics involved. It’s interesting to note that 65% of the people who choose to do this are able to pay; they just don’t want to.

The site itself states:

“Strategic default, also known as voluntary foreclosure, is when the borrower decides to stop paying a mortgage even though they can still afford the payment. We are experienced professionals who have helped over 5,000 people go through this process. Whether you are going through it because you have no other options, or just because, we won’t judge your reason, we just want to help you find solutions. Use the law to your advantage.”

My friend, Jordan, who told me about the site, said it succinctly – “Obviously it’s legal. It doesn’t mean it’s right.”

It was in this context that I took a drive with Ross Friedman, business colleague and successful real-estate developer in the north shore suburbs of Chicago.

Ross gave me a tour of one of his projects, a beautiful town-house complex in downtown Lake Forest. It was impressive. He explained, more like a proud parent than business man, that the project was over ten years in development and turned out even better than he hoped. He mentioned that he just sold the last unit, then paused and said quietly, “And we’ve just completed the obligation on our bank note.”

He explained that the project had come on line concurrent with the recent mortgage meltdown. And although every unit was eventually sold, the delay resulted in a net loss for his efforts. Yet there was never a question of ‘walking away.’ “A person keeps his promises.”

The lenders got paid. The new owners have beautiful homes. My friend didn’t make a dime.

When I asked Ross for permission to share this brief episode of a long and successful career he said “Hey Mitch, what’s the big deal? It’s nothing special. I love my work. I try to do the best I can for the people who rely on me, for clients, my employees and for my family. I’m no big role model.”

And, of course, Ross wasn’t alone in this situation. A lot of people got hit hard in the real-estate arena, and most kept their promises. But it sure feels like there are a lot fewer “Rosses” around than we used to have. And a lot more’s.

I wonder if these ‘walkaways’ are indicative of a shift in expectations about what’s normal & acceptable behavior amongst us fellow citizens. And if it becomes widely acceptable for a group of people to just ‘walk away’ from their promises in their personal lives, what impact might this have on our work place behavior, our codes of conduct and our cultures of compliance?



in•teg•ri•ty [in-teg-ri-tee]

–noun, from the latin adjective – integer (whole, complete)

1. Adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.
2. The state of being whole, entire, or undiminished.
3. A sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition: the integrity of a ship’s hull.

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Spotlight: Stories from the Front

Welcome to Spotlight.

The goal of this blog is to illuminate the leadership challenges and opportunities inherent in bringing a code of conduct to life.

Over the years we’ve had the privilege to work with remarkable leaders, world class artists and learning professionals, all of whom have brought their character, competence and chemistry to these challenges.

Every few weeks we will be posting their stories and those of many others.

We invite you to stop by, take a look, share your perspective and maybe your own story.

Spotlight goes ‘live’ May 9th! Watch your email for an alert about our upcoming launch date.

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