April 16, 2020

How to Build a Company Culture Based on Trust with Renn Vara

Key Takeaways from our Leadership Series Event with Renn Vara

As a company, it’s difficult to build a culture based entirely on trust. You have to trust your people not only when they succeed but also when they fail, and trust that in the long run, the height of your successes will outweigh those failures.

While the payoff will be worth it, taking the risks involved in building a trust-based culture requires confidence.

To help leaders address this question, we brought in Renn Vara, co-founder of SNP Communications and Leadership Coach at Airbnb, TransferWise and Google. His engaging style illuminated the breakfast session at the Amazon Web Services offices off Old Street.

We’ve written this article in order to share Renn’s insights with people who didn’t get the pleasure to attend 😉. You can see the entire talk here, or just the highlights.

The Tyranny of Experience

Renn’s main role as a leadership coach, as he puts it, is to help senior people overcome “The Tyranny of Experience”. Our experience of work and life is valuable, but it can also lead to conservative thinking and an aversion for risk-taking.

Overcoming this doesn’t mean thoughtlessly accepting outlandish mission statements or unrealistic strategies. It comes down to recognising that your perspective on reality is just that — a perspective. To overcome the tyranny of experience, you need to value your perspective equally against the spectrum of other perspectives out there. Through active listening and empathy, you can genuinely understand somebody else’s perspective.

It may seem risky but will save you from making a lot of mistakes. If you open up and listen, your decision-making will become more informed, and based on a greater collective knowledge.

There are no easy answers

“Lead but don’t lead” was, to Renn, a perfect example of the kind of contradictory thing that founders are asked to do nowadays. We’re asked to achieve the impossible, to improve quality and deliver more quickly, all with fewer resources.

As one audience member remarked, we’re told to move fast and break things, but what do we do when that actually does break things — as in the case of Theranos or WeWork?

Renn’s replied that there isn’t a universal answer. Speed and innovation mean different things in different industries, different contexts and different countries. What works in Silicon Valley could fail spectacularly elsewhere.

In response to a question about the dilemma between hiring and retraining your workforce in response to digital transformation, Renn honestly answered, “Both”. He observed that you need to take care of the people at your company who are missionaries, as well as those who are mercenaries.

Driven by a transactional approach to work, mercenaries will not hesitate to speak up when they feel they deserve improved pay or benefits. Missionaries believe more deeply in your mission, and are more likely to stay silent. It’s your responsibility to equip them with the tools they need to grow and give them opportunities to express their needs.

Listen in order to build trust.

There’s no six-minutes-abs strategy to build trust, but Renn made some fundamental observations to act upon which will help you get there.

1. Our society is in the midst of a crisis of trust

Trust is not merely lacking at work, but across our society, politics and culture. This environment makes it more difficult to foster a trust-based culture at work, but can also open up an opportunity to give your people a respite from general social distrust.

2. In order to trust somebody else, we need to understand ourselves

It’s a pesky point, but as in so much of life, we cannot truly understand others until we understand ourselves. It’s important to know your own ego, your self-interest and your ambition before you can begin to understand, and therefore trust, others.

3. Don’t call millennials entitled

Try not to use the word entitlement, whether talking about millennials at work, or anybody else. Renn’s wider point here was that thinking in this way creates a separation — it makes you less likely to empathise with that group, and therefore less likely to understand them. You need to treat the new workforce with respect, listen to them, and overcome the tyranny of your own experience.

4. You are going to get burnt

Brian Chesky, founder of Airbnb, once told Renn that “if we have to make a rule, then it means we’ve failed!” That’s true, but it’s also true that Airbnb have rules — that they did fail.

There will be failures, and there will be situations in which you cannot rely entirely on trust. But you can still build a company where the rules are the fallback, as they are at Airbnb. In the long run, trusting your people is the better solution, even if there may be bumps along the way.

There’s no easy answer to the problem of building a trust-based culture at your company. Renn knows that, which is why he preferred thoughtful advice over one-size-fits-all. If each of your initiatives feed into your vision while including the people involved, you’ll get there faster and with a team who are ready to learn and help when things get broken along the way.

This won’t get you there in one do, but as a final point, Renn did share a practical, actionable tip for immediately improving the level of trust at your company:

Break a rule for your team. Show them you trust them, more so than you do the rules, and immediately inspire loyalty.

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