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Leading with Character: Build Trust and Earn Respect

Last week I proposed that every leader should develop a leadership philosophy. Over the next three weeks, we’ll explore each element of what worked for me.

Engaged Leadership

  • Build trust and earn respect
  • Believe in yourself and others
  • Demonstrate moral courage

Perhaps the most important requirement for a leader of character is to build trust and earn respect. Build and earn are active verbs demanding continual engagement. The two words fit together and complement each other. I tend to view the building trust element as pertaining more to the organization, while the earning respect element has more to do with the people. Building trust helps a leader create happiness and boost productivity in the workplace. A happy and productive workplace is likely one with a strong culture of respect, enabling individuals to thrive and the organization to succeed.

Building trust and earning respect is hard, partly because many people don’t comprehend the subtle context of the words build and earn. Picture the word build. Civil engineers build bridges, children build sandcastles, birds build nests. Now picture the word earn. Workers earn money, scouts earn merit badges, athletes earn fame. It all takes time and effort, and you have to do it one piece or one step at a time. Trust and respect won’t exist in the workplace until they’re actively built and earned. Engaged leaders of character create the conditions to nurture growth of these crucial core values.

Customer Service
 Upon reporting to my new position as deputy commandant for mission support, I stepped up to lead a large organization consisting of about one-half of the Coast Guard’s workforce. The mission support organization, newly established as part of the Service’s modernization effort, had a long way to go to reach full operating capability.

It was our duty to support every Coast Guard mission and every Coast Guard person. To succeed, we needed to gain peoples’ trust. It was imperative to cultivate a customer-focused culture, and I found out how hard that would be. I’d pulled together a small, informal team to develop themes for my strategic vision, called a commander’s intent. During our initial meeting, I let the team know my vision needed to address improved customer service.

To my surprise, the team members responded in unison with the same concern. “Admiral, we can’t call them customers. They’ll get the wrong impression and think they have a choice in the service we provide. Our job is to provide standard support services. We give them what they need, not what they want.”

I was appalled to learn that this traditional, institutional mindset persisted several years after the Coast Guard’s modernization effort had begun.

Studying for my MBA at the Kellogg Business School had taught me a lot about customer service. I knew a high performing organization was fully capable of delivering standard service with reasonable choices. Take McDonald’s, for instance. As a fast-food chain, the restaurant provides a host of standard choices and a menu to choose from. Customers can select a hamburger, chicken, or fish sandwich; they can add fries or upsize a drink. There was nothing, except institutional mindsets, to stop Coast Guard mission support from providing similarly tailored customer service.

As an example, with our new focus on customer service, we addressed the issue of spare parts delivery to remote locations, like Guam. At the time, we had one standard inventory control point for cutter and boat support in Baltimore, Maryland. Although this structure offered peak efficiency in terms of processing parts from a central location, it didn’t adequately meet operational readiness needs in Guam. Since there is no express mail service to Guam, shipping parts the standard way didn’t meet that customer’s needs for timely repair to meet operational requirements. To resolve the problem, we developed a “push parts” program to proactively send the most commonly needed parts to Guam, where they were locally stored and available for immediate use in the event of an equipment or machinery casualty.

To build trust, it was imperative to include the operators, or customers, in support service delivery conversations. We had to understand their needs and address their concerns, as with the case of proactive delivery of spare parts to Guam. In the past, mission support had implemented new services that yielded enterprise-level efficiencies but caused unanticipated problems for the customer in the fleet or field. We needed to focus foremost on the customer.

The first few months in a new executive position are pivotal, filled with opportunities to recognize and seize. Leading with character means sincerely humbling yourself to actively earn others’ respect through personal and professional power. Doing so, while eschewing position power when possible, will motivate and inspire others to support your vision and strategic intent.

Look in the mirror. Do you start each day making an effort the build trust and earn the respect of those around you?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.