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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