As part of our series about the “**Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing David Horsager.
David Horsager, MA, CSP, CPAE, is the CEO of Trust Edge Leadership Institute, Trust Expert in Residence at High Point University, and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Trust Edge. David has advised leaders and delivered life-changing presentations on six continents, with audiences ranging from FedEx, Toyota, MIT and global governments to the New York Yankees and the Department of Homeland Security. His new book, Trusted Leader: 8 Pillars that Drive Results (BK Publishers, March 30, 2021) describes how to create a companywide foundation of trust. Learn more at www.TrustEdge.com or www.DavidHorsager.com.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Growing up on a farm in rural Minnesota, I had firsthand examples of great leadership from my parents; they worked hard and did the right thing even when no one was watching. Witnessing leadership done incredibly well influenced my decision to direct a large camp in Arkansas after college. Let me tell you, earning the trust of board members who were 20+ years my senior was a crucial steppingstone towards what would become the sole focus of my future organization.
From the camp director role, my wife and I made a massive leap into travelling and delivery illusions-based speaking events; the irony of going from illusionist to professional trust developer is not lost on me, but illusions and trust are not as far removed as you might think. The greatest illusionists know how to be trusted by their audience. This is why it’s better to be trustworthy instead of simply trusted. The most deceptive person is the one who appears trusted but is not, in fact, worthy of it.
The greatest turning point in my career happened while on the road with my wife. I still remember having a sort of epiphany around trust. The leaders at this particular event were talking about organizational issues and afterward I kept thinking how the real issue was not sales or communication or even leadership; the real issue was TRUST. That led to my graduate work in 2010 and ongoing research around trust development. There were eight traits that came out of the original research which formed the framework for building trust in leaders and organizations.
Writing my first book The Trust Edge and building a company may sound great, but the reality was different. Living in a moldy basement with only a $1.40 to our name and wondering how we were going to make rent or get groceries was an effective motivator to keep us going. In the right circumstances necessity can be a powerful motivator and thankfully, with the support of a lot of incredible people, the business and framework started making an impact quickly as we partnered with significant leaders and companies to develop trust which grew their bottom lines!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
During one event in Bangkok, I caught the train only to discover it was going the wrong direction. Pay attention! Know the direction you are headed — literally and figuratively.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
If you’re doing leadership alone, you’re doing it wrong. There are so many people who helped make Trust Edge Leadership Institute what it is today, but one of the most longstanding influences is an accountability group with my three closest friends. For 28 years we have been meeting annually to share challenges, celebrate wins, and find new avenues forward.
One of the most formative opportunities for growth in your life is receiving the wisdom of people who actually care about you. Seek out opportunities for mentorship and accountability with people who genuinely care about supporting you.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
From the beginning, our organizational DNA has been very missional and focused on people-changing work. Even the doing the illusion shows way back were all for the purpose of sharing a transformative message. Today, our company’s mission is to develop trusted leaders and organizations around the world.
Trust is the crux of lasting success of any kind because high-trust teams and organizations bring out the best in their people and get the greatest results.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
1 . Be as transparent as you can be while being as confidential as you ought to be.
I remember early in the pandemic, bringing the team together in a meeting and talking through the real implications of how this could change our business and life. I shared as much as I could every step of the way so that my team stayed up to date on changes.
2. Focus on what WILL succeed even amidst uncertainty.
Momentum builds momentum. Find ways for your people to complete achievable goals and then genuinely appreciate and celebrate those wins. Success will build on itself.
3. Narrow focus to one priority.
When our team shifted to remote work in the pandemic, we had team video calls every morning and afternoon to maintain alignment and communicate often. We shifted priorities down to one single focus instead of building out multiple areas of the businesses. By having one focal point, everyone could align their efforts to that single most important priority.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Yes! In the early days of starting the business, my first and primary driver was providing for my family. Our only choice was to keep going and make it happen. Secondly, I am passionate about the mission and this trust work. I authentically believe that building trust can make lasting change and make a dent in the trust crisis around the world. Thirdly, this mission has changed companies but even before that, I saw how this work changed me personally. Lastly, I see a bigger purpose in developing trust; a lot of my drive comes from the God-given calling that has surrounded this business over the years.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Four areas come to mind for leaders:
- Clarity. People trust the clear and distrust or mistrust the ambiguous. Even if change is the only option, leaders will benefit by clearly communicating the “why.” Change might be resisted from within your organization but, even so, you can share the reason behind needing to pivot.
- Commitment. People believe in those who stand through adversity. Leaders who persevere through challenges stand out among the crowd. If you show your commitment, others will follow. If you don’t, others will falter.
- Character. People notice those who do what is right over what is easy. Character shows itself in crisis. Sticking with your values in a crisis and making decisions by them will create dependability that your people can trust.
- Connection. People want to follow, buy from, and be around those who connect and collaborate. During our team’s twice daily meetings last year we would re-align to the priority and work through roadblocks in the morning and then in the afternoon, we would set priorities for the next day and share celebrations. A team that connects and collaborates will outperform the competition every time.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Many people imagine inspiration and motivation to be about big gestures or loud celebrations. Those have their place but sometimes the greater engagement happens in the small moments of everyday appreciation and connection.
I would recommend leading the conversation with empathy. Having one-on-one meetings with my employees and genuinely checking in on how they’re doing as humans has made a world of difference — not just asking how their work is going but seeking to understand their life and how are they doing as individual people and families!
In the middle of a crisis, this investment of time and connection can feel like a secondary need but what your people are experiencing might be drastically affecting them, more than you even know. There’s not work and life. There’s just life — one affects the other and vice-a-versa. Show appreciation, connect, and lead with empathy!
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I believe that every leadership and organizational challenge can be solved with these eight pillars. The work of leadership is being willing to have difficult conversations and share difficult news. From those eight pillars I would prioritize clarity, compassion (empathy), and consistency when delivering difficult news.
- Clarity. Be transparent about all that you can share and confidential about what you can’t. When you must be confidential, make sure to communicate why you can’t share certain things. Even sharing the “why” will increase your trust as a leader.
- Compassion. Lead the conversation with appreciation and care for them.
- Consistency. Be the same onstage and off. Be consistent in words and actions and communicate difficult news with that same continuity.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Even when things are unclear, you can find some things to be clear about. Share what you still know and communicate often. Our team experienced the value of using shorter timeframes during uncertainty. Set a goal for one month, one week, or even just one day at a time when there is unpredictability. Where there is rapid change, shorter timeframes can help reduce anxiety. Encourage your team to ask themselves “What can I do?” and then, “What can I do first?” These simple questions give a sense of individual control.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Stick to your values. Stay congruent. Those who sacrifice their values when things get tough lose an enormous amount of trust and their business suffers.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
You’ll notice some similarity here and it’s worth saying again because the leaders who don’t make these mistakes will not only survive a crisis but may even grow during it.
- Not sharing the “why” for pivots. I have partnered with leaders whose employees leave not because of a change, but because of a lack of clarity and transparency in the midst of change.
- Failing to empathize enough with their people and/or being untouchable. We call the LAWS of Compassion: Listen, Appreciate, Wake up and be present, and Serve others.
- Not connecting authentically or frequently. Again, people trust those who connect and collaborate!
- Sticking their head in the sand. If businesses are to have any chance of surviving difficult times, they must confront reality. When they are up front with hard realities, they can cast a hopeful vision for the future, and find clear, measurable steps for a path forward.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
It may seem backwards but, in turbulent times, just be there for your clients. It might mean sacrificing and giving away more to your clients and prospects. What we have seen is that people will remember those who showed up generously during difficulty.
Be willing to risk even more and make big pivots quickly. One of our learning and development solutions is based in travelling and speaking at events around the world. I knew very quickly that the speaking side of the business was going to change rapidly. Early in the pandemic, we quickly pivoted by clearing out our board room and transforming it into a five-camera studio so we could launch into the virtual event space at the highest possible caliber.
Those who can adapt and change rapidly will dodge some of the harshest business losses!
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
As a recap, the most successful leaders are trustworthy and use the eight pillars to guide their team through crisis. So, here are five of the eight ways a leader can be most effective:
Share “why.” Pivot quickly. Give a clear plan and leverage shorter timeframes.
Practice genuine empathy by listening to your people, showing appreciation, waking up and being present, and serving others.
Know your top five decision-making values so that in a crisis you can be congruent and reliable.
Demonstrate your commitment and others will follow. If you don’t, others will falter.
People are trusted for whatever they do consistently! Build trust consistently, especially in crisis and become most trusted in your industry.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are many sayings that have helped guide my life and business, but amidst a lot of unknowns, this one has stood out and affected the way my team and I have made decisions in the last year: “It’s the little things done consistently that make the biggest difference.”
In our company we call the Consistency Pillar “the king and queen of the pillars” because we are trusted for whatever we do consistently — for good or bad. When you consistently build the other seven pillars, your trust-building efforts multiply exponentially!
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow me on LinkedIn, Instagram, or Twitter. Check out www.TrustEdge.com, www.DavidHorsager.com, and www.TrustEdgeCoaching.com for more of the latest research and resources for building trust around the world.