"Trust is reciprocal in nature": Q&A with Stephen M. R. Covey

Monday 6th May 2019

Stephen MR Covey

In the lead-up to the annual World Business Forum to be held in Sydney this month, Industry Moves talks to featured speaker Stephen M. R. Covey, the bestselling author of The SPEED of Trust. Covey shares his thoughts on the attributes of trustworthy leaders, the reciprocal nature of trust and the untapped potential of social media - all viewed through a 'practitioners lens'. He also pays tribute to his parents and the role they have played in shaping his values and appreciation for life.

"If you, as a leader, want to be trusted, you’ve got to give trust."

What are the attributes of a leader who embodies trust?

To put it simply, character & competence. Both attributes are vital and work together. We’ve all probably worked with people who may be strong in one of these areas, yet weak in the other. For example, a leader who is strong in character may be a good person, an honest person, and someone who truly cares about the people they serve. However, if they’re not also competent, or capable in the necessary job to be done, or if they don’t have a track record of performance, we won’t fully trust them. Having character is vital, but by itself, insufficient. On the other hand, a leader who is highly competent, skilled, and capable in their work, but who has weaker character, maybe a self-serving agenda, or low integrity, we won’t fully trust them either. It’s when we feel like a leader has strong character, and is competent in the job to be done, that we’re fully able to trust. I think if you consider the truly great leaders, you’ll find these two attributes to be paramount in their success with people.

"We need more trust, not less. Somebody’s got to start, and it’s the leader’s job to go first, to lead out with trust."

What impact do you think social media has had on society in the level of trust we have for each other and our leaders?

Social media has certainly enabled a greater volume of communication, and in some cases, wider access and increased influence. That said, I think the overall effectiveness of social media, like any form of communication, is a function of the credibility of the person, or institution in question, rather than the platform. Just as there are many utilising social media with the intent to harm, cyber-bully, and scam, there are also a great number of leaders leveraging social media in positive ways that help to grow societal trust.

"I believe there is still a great deal of untapped potential to be discovered as trust and social media continue to converge."

If you look at the twitter account of the Dalai Lama, for example, you’ll find a number of insights intended to inspire hope, community, and the general well-being of others. You can see that these tweets are shared in great number, which likely helps to promote trust in society, as indicated by the sheer number of followers (19+ million!), and resulting social media activity. Twitter is used in a similar fashion by business leaders like Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, and Doug Conant, former CEO of The Campbell Soup Company. LinkedIn is another great example. It works as a digital resume, whose components are validated by the experiences of a person’s LinkedIn connections. This is a great tool for building trust. Also consider how social media is used to drive crowdfunding to promote charitable causes through platforms like GoFundMe, or new business ventures through Kickstarter. All in all, I think the impact is positive, and I believe there is still a great deal of untapped potential to be discovered as trust and social media continue to converge.

Can you give an example of how you have worked with an organisation that has needed your services for re-building trust?

I had the opportunity of being brought in to work with a new executive team that was made up of leaders primarily from 2 global companies, where one had recently been acquired by the other. These two companies were each headquartered in different countries, and had very different cultures. While the acquisition made perfect sense, and looked really great on paper, the practical implications of merging 2 different cultures and 2 different ways of doing business is a very difficult thing. Both cultures had trust within and among themselves, but that doesn’t naturally translate to the new, combined culture. In fact, if anything, I’ve learned that generally, trust itself is the very first casualty of most mergers and acquisitions.

"I’ve learned that generally, trust itself is the very first casualty of most mergers and acquisitions."

Any time there’s significant change, or uncertainty in an organisation, people tend to turn inward and more often than not, withholding trust tends to be the natural response. The costs to this are astronomical. Again though, both of these cultures were great, trustworthy cultures, and the intent of the acquisition was mutual strength. But here’s the thing, it’s entirely possible to have two trustworthy people working together, and not have trust. If neither party is willing to extend it to the other, there will be no trust. Scale this out to two inherently different cultures, and the impact on the business can’t be overstated. In this case, we had trustworthy people working together, but there was a lot at stake. To truly understand each other, both sides needed to focus on extending trust to one another. This changed the way they communicated, solved problems, and allowed them to begin to truly collaborate. This may sound simple, but it’s not easy. I’ve seen this same dynamic at play on some level in nearly every organization and team I’ve worked with over the years.

Is there someone or something, in particular, that has influenced your life/career?

Definitely my parents. From my mother, I learned to value and appreciate life, particularly the finer things in life such as art, music, culture, history, etc. The local community where my mother lives named their Performing Arts Center after her (The Sandra M. Covey Center for the Arts) because of her many contributions to the arts and because she was the driving force in getting the centre established in the first place. From my father, I learned the values of vision and integrity. Vision in the sense that life is about contribution, not accumulation, and to see myself as one who could make a difference in the world. And integrity in the sense that how we go about achieving that vision matters enormously—we need to do it in the right way. Integrity was the source of my father’s power.

You have travelled extensively with your presentations, have you a favourite destination?

I’ve spoken on The Speed of Trust in more than 50 different countries. I love to travel, and love to experience new places, food, and cultures. Driving through Switzerland is perhaps the most beautiful drive I’ve ever made. Additionally, I love Sydney and have travelled here for both business and pleasure. The view of Sydney Harbour is second to none. Also near the top of the list for me would be London. Samuel Johnson said “When a man tires of London, he has tired of life.” I’m nowhere near tired of either.

"I look at the work of leadership first through the lens of a practitioner, rather than an academic or theorist, which I think gives me a practical perspective."

Where did you grow up and what was it like?

I lived in a couple of different places growing up. Most of the time I lived in the state of Utah in the USA. But I also lived three years in Belfast, Northern Ireland and later spent 15 months “in paradise” on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, USA. I was quite young when we lived in Belfast so I mostly just remember the beautiful, small lake and meadow by where we lived. I definitely loved living in Hawaii because we were literally moments away from swimming in the ocean. And I especially loved living in the rocky mountains of Utah because of its natural beauty and because of the friendly and neighbourly community where I spent most of my youth growing up.

What is something that most people don’t know about you?

Because my father and namesake (Dr. Stephen R. Covey) is well known for his work on leadership (author and presenter of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, First Things First, and Principle-Centered Leadership), people often assume that I just followed in his footsteps by starting as an author and presenter. While I am doing that now, I spent the first 18 years of my career on the operational and managerial side of things. I learned the business, and then I ran it. It was only when I finally felt I had something to say (with The Speed of Trust) that I moved into the authoring and presenting side of it. The net result is that I look at the work of leadership first through the lens of a practitioner, rather than an academic or theorist, which I think gives me a practical perspective.

"I’ve spoken on The Speed of Trust in more than 50 different countries. I love to travel, and love to experience new places, food, and cultures."

What would you most like the audience take away from your upcoming talk at World Business Forum, Sydney.

If you, as a leader, want to be trusted, you’ve got to give trust. Trust is reciprocal in nature. When you give it, people receive it, and they tend to return it. When you withhold trust, especially as a leader, you will find that your people withhold it from you. They reciprocate that distrust right back at you. You end up caught in a vicious downward cycle of distrust and suspicion creating more distrust and suspicion. Rather, we need leaders who get that cycle working in the opposite direction, creating a virtuous upward cycle of trust and confidence, creating more trust and more confidence. We need more trust, not less. Somebody’s got to start, and it’s the leader’s job to go first, to lead out with trust.

World Business Forum Want to hear more from Stephen M.R. Covey? Click here for details about his upcoming presentation at this year's World Business Forum, to be held on May 28 & 29 in Sydney. Industry Moves' readers can use promo code IM10 when purchasing tickets to receive a 10% discount.
Industry Moves is a proud supporting partner of the event.

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