Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch said this about trust: "You know it when you feel it." Trust is equivalent to confidence, and is critical to learning and change. By building trust, projects take less time, are less disruptive and more successful. This applies to any type of change within a firm, but is especially important to technology, where change is rapid and projects often cost more and take longer to complete than anticipated.

According to Stephen Covey in The Speed of Trust, "Trust always affects two outcomes -- speed and cost. When trust goes down, speed will also go down and cost will go up. When trust goes up, speed will also go up and costs will go down."

In this article, I will focus on how firms can build trust and jettison suspicion.

Trends in technology and firm management require a high-trust culture to remain competitive. Some will say trust is a "soft" commodity, but there's no doubt it shows up on your firm's income statement and balance sheet. Trust is actually a tangible asset you can create -- faster than you might think. Keep in mind, though, that you can also lose it quickly.

Covey uses the terms "tax" and "dividends" to explain high-trust versus low-trust organizations. Low-trust firms pay a tax because of suspicion and the barriers that result. High-trust firms earn dividends because they have eliminated suspicion and its roadblocks.

Trust will spread in firms that embrace training and learning. Moreover, it can be leveraged as a strategic asset. Keep in mind that people may have character but lack competence, and vice-versa. A combination of both forms the foundation of a high-trust firm. But these are not enough -- you must also be able to produce results.

Today's global economy revolves around relationships that thrive on trust. With this in mind, let's examine how firms can assess current levels of trust and how to foster a culture that spreads it throughout the firm.

The process of assessment outlined below is more formal than described by Jack Welch, but not as difficult as it might appear. I have drafted five questions to help you determine the level of trust within your firm.

1. Do you hold yourself and others accountable? (Leaders who generate trust do both.)

2. Do you trust your manager/partner? (If you have multiple bosses, answer based upon your primary manager or partner. Remember that employees don't leave firms, they leave managers or partners.)

3. Do you have integrity and competence? (Integrity is constant, while competence is situational and based upon skills, training and unique abilities. It is not uncommon for someone with integrity to be placed in a job where they lack competence. Training and learning build competence and trust.)

4. Do you understand and buy in to the firm's vision? (Have you seen your firm's strategic plan and do you share the vision? Do you have a personal game plan?)

5. Is your firm transparent? (Do leaders tell the truth in a verifiable way? Do they set expectations in advance and then provide regular and honest feedback?)

As with any measuring system, all progress starts with the truth. It's imperative that you answer the questions honestly and not project ideals, but only how you and your firm are doing today. If your result is four or five "yes" answers, you and your firm are poised for a high level of trust. Those with three or fewer "yes" answers should develop a firm-wide plan to increase trust immediately. Firms that possess internal and external trust will grow rapidly and avoid paying the "taxes" referred to by Covey: redundancy, bureaucracy, politics, disengagement, turnover, client churn and fraud.

Most firms can heighten trust -- and should, if they expect to retain and attract quality people and clients. Improvement must start at the top, and many underlying issues are behavioral. If partners focus only on competence and not integrity, it will be impossible to establish a high level of trust. The good news is that you can grow this asset much faster than you think if you concentrate on key behaviors. Covey outlines these, and they are listed below. I have added comments.

* Talk straight. Be honest and don't spin the truth. Let people know where you stand and use simple language.

* Demonstrate respect. The old saying, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," is correct. Don't attempt to be efficient with people.

* Create transparency. Be open and genuine. Tell the truth in a way that people can verify. Err on the side of disclosure.

* Right wrongs. Make things right when you are wrong. Apologize quickly.

* Show loyalty. Give others credit and speak as if they are present. Don't disclose private information.

* Deliver results. Establish a track record of results. Get things done and make them happen. Accomplish your 90-day game plan.

* Get better. Don't assume that today's knowledge and skills will meet tomorrow's challenges. Support a training/learning culture in which everyone grows, and increase your own capabilities while teaching others.

* Confront reality. Address the tough issues directly. Don't be afraid to confront others and hold them accountable. Don't bury your head in the sand and avoid necessary conflict.

* Clarify expectations. When workers understand what they're supposed to do, they need little supervision and can be trusted to complete a job. Hire quality people and expect high performance.

* Practice accountability. Hold yourself accountable before any others. High performers love accountability, while mediocre ones avoid it. Utilize 90-day game plans and accountability reviews.

* Listen first. Those who make an extra effort to hear what others are saying garner more insight and show respect to the speaker. Good listeners earn trust and respect much more rapidly.

* Keep commitments. Do what you say you will do and make commitments carefully.

* Extend trust. Show others the propensity to trust. Don't withhold trust because there is risk involved.

According to Covey, trust starts with the individual and expands to relationships, organizations, markets and society. Individuals and firms should be cognizant of the impact trust has upon their strategic planning process, technology, retention and attraction of people, performance, and culture.

Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.

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