Create Employee Trust by Building a Culture of “We”

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In my experience, talented employees stick with companies through challenging times only when they trust their leadership. The great business thinker Peter Drucker recognized the importance of this distinction when he noted the best leaders “Never say ‘I.’ They say ‘we.’  They understand their job to be to make the team function. They accept responsibility and don’t sidestep it, but ‘we’ gets the credit. This is what creates trust.”

During my many conversations with PanTheryx CEO Mark Braman, he almost never spoke in the first person. Braman’s leadership style created a culture of “we,” which became crucial in 2013 when the company faced unexpected challenges. But it enabled the team at PanTheryx to display unyielding resilience and perseverance, because they believed their product, DiaResQ worked.

When a company embraces a “we” culture, every employee enjoys the personal satisfaction of knowing they contributed to a successful outcome. An ancient Chinese philosopher wrote, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists…when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say: We did it ourselves.”

My book, An Unlikely Intervention, recounts a series of brutal setbacks suffered by PanTheryx in 2013, a year the company had projected to be a “breakout year” that would propel the company to new heights. Morale plunged as discouraged employees began to question the company’s long-term prospects. CEO Braman turned to the wisdom drawn from one of his mentors, the legendary coach Bo Schembechler for whom Braman had played football at the University of Michigan. Schembechler frequently exhorted his players “In times of difficulty, those brave enough to stay the course will be victors in the end.”

As a dispiriting 2013 came to a close, Braman sent an email to all company employees in which he recalled his mentor’s words and, highlighting the “we” culture he had instilled, vowing, “If we all stay the course and remain fully committed, we will persevere.”

The industrialist Andrew Carnegie said, “No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit for doing it.” Braman did not want to get the credit for turning the company around. He knew the company’s eventual success would depend on all employees proudly proclaiming, “We did it ourselves.”

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