Trust: The Most Important Pillar for a Great Team

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By Lauren Costella

Most Customer Success leaders, and managers in general, tend to underestimate the importance of trust. It’s fundamental for all relationships. Not just between a company and customers, but  also for your internal team. How much time do you spend building trust with your team? How do you build trust? Is trust based in being vulnerable (which means you can admit when you mess up and ask for help)?

These are some of the questions that every leader should be asking his/herself every single day because the secret to great leadership is not in your ability to do everything, rather, the team you build and coach. At the center of amazing teams is trust, so if you’re not focused here, you need to start!

What does “trust” really mean?

I use the definition from Patrick Lencioni, who wrote the book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and then created a coaching program based around the positive version of those behaviors (the Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team).

He describes trust as “vulnerability” based. It essentially means that you can open up to others on the team about difficult topics. He doesn’t necessarily mean opening up on personal matters; rather, he means opening up and talking about when you’ve messed up, discussing when you need help, and voicing freely your failures and weaknesses. Vulnerability based trust, then, is about being honest with your team and yourself. This makes a lot of sense because it allows for an environment of real dialogue about issues and not trying to tiptoe around tough conversations. If you don’t have trust, you can’t have healthy conflict, which prevents you and the team from solving real issues to get to results.

But what does a lack of trust look like? Well he discusses that teams who lack trust often:

  • Conceal their weaknesses and mistakes from one another

  • Hesitate to ask for help or provide constructive feedback

  • Don’t offer help to people outside of their own areas of responsibility

  • Jump to conclusions about the intentions and aptitudes of others without attempting to

    clarify them

  • Fail to recognize and tap into one another’s skills and experiences

  • Waste time and energy managing their behaviors for effect

  • Hold grudges

  • Find reasons to avoid spending time together

I don’t know about you, but I have certainly experienced these types of behaviors at various companies within my executive team, my own leadership team, and within my company. When you understand that foundationally it has to do with trust, you begin to realize how important then building a trust based  environment is for your team’s success.

Creating a trust based environment

It’s pretty simple. It starts with you! As a leader, it’s critical for you to create an environment for “vulnerability based” trust. This is task should not be underestimated! It’s really hard! 

First, consider leading by example. One thing that I found to be effective was to lay myself out there and being vulnerable first. I have many flaws but certainly at the end of 2018, my leadership and management skills could have been largely improved, and I needed to change. I explained to my team that I wasn’t happy with my performance. I also explained that this is something I really wanted to work on immediately. And I told them I was sorry. 

Simply acknowledging my weaknesses, apologizing, and committing to working on those things opened up a new avenue of communication. Obviously, following through on that commitment mattered as well, but in the short term, guess what? My team was not only super understanding, supportive, and forgiving, they too wanted to help and reciprocate with admitting their own mistakes.

Another way I helped to build trust was hiring a coach for me and my team leaders. As a third party, this coach helped us to understand our own working styles and facilitated the creation of some “team” guidelines. These guidelines are how we approach every meeting, and we say them out loud before our L10 (level ten) meeting each week. These guidelines set the tone of trust and respect, so when we discuss tough issues that may involve difficult or behavioral problems, we are able to have unfiltered and open dialogue.


Example of our Team Guidelines:

I’ve also found trust exercises to be effective. Before our bigger offsites, where we set our quarterly goals and priorities, we open up our meeting with a very simple trust building set of questions. They aren’t always the same, but I’ve found this set to be very helpful:

  • Where were you born?

  • How many siblings do you have?

  • What’s your birth order?

  • And what’s a challenge or experience you faced growing up that’s impacted you today?

Going around the room and hearing from your team and having other team members hear from their fellow colleagues sets the stage for further understanding why someone thinks and acts the way they do. With this foundation of understanding, respect can be built. And with respect, you, colleagues and your team can have unfiltered open dialogue about tough issues without the added unhealthy behaviors mentioned above.

Finally, we also spend time with each other! As much as I am social, admittedly, it’s hard for me (at times) to remember to do things with my team. Whether it’s a happy hour or a fun lunch or after work dinner, I don’t always think to set this up. It’s not because I don’t want to spend time with them, I just get lost in the minutiae of the everyday. Let’s face it, we’re all busy. Whether it’s family, sports, friends, relationships, etcetera, we have a million things going on after work. But don’t let this stop you from doing things outside of the office! Get your team together. It’s critical to have a place where you and your team can interact and let your hair down. These kinds of interactions make us all “human” and build the foundation for being vulnerable,

Building Trust is Not One and Done, it’s Iterative and Ongoing

Like nurturing a customer, instilling trust isn’t a one and done thing. You must continuously build trust within your team. Every time you add or lose team members, you need to work extra hard to bring those new folks into the fold or provide the environment for the new team to function. 

I’ve found that it’s easiest to bring new folks into the mix (and build team champions for trust) by providing consistency in actions. This is both individual and group oriented. As an individual, you should do what you say and say what you mean. The fastest way to erode trust on a team is to make promises you can’t keep. Over promising and under-delivering is demotivating, lets everyone down, and leads to dysfunction. 

As a group, be consistent with things like meetings, metrics, and commitments. For example, like most teams, we host a weekly CS Leadership meeting. And in this meeting, we provide a consistent meeting structure. We don’t deviate from this. At this meeting we always recite our team guidelines out loud, we spend little to no time on anything we can “read” prior to the meeting, and we spend time solving issues (which gets back to why we need to build trust in the first place). We also have rules, like ELMO (everyone let’s move on), IDS (identify, debate, solve), and we start and end on time. Because we provide consistency in structure, it’s easier to bring new people into the mix and keep these meetings going, even when people are missing.

And celebrate when your team exemplifies trust! Call out those who embrace a culture of admitting mistakes, ask for help, and provide constructive feedback. In fact, I recommend doing this in the moment it happens. This can be hard at times, but I’ve literally interrupted discussion to recognize publicly the person(s), who are admitting mistakes, ask for help, and providing other team members constructive feedback. By celebrating these actions, it encourages and makes it okay for others to do the same.

As leaders, we always have a million and one things on our plates to do, manage, fix, and think about, but building trust with and within your team is the one thing that can’t get lost in the mix. An effective, high functioning team that can talk about tough issues, commit to decisions, hold each other accountable for achieving those commitments, and ultimately obtaining the best results, rely on trust to be at the core. How do you build trust? Are your pillars deep enough? Take action today!

The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that offers a Leadership Training Program for current and prospective CS leaders. For more details on this program and our other training and consulting engagements, please visit TheSuccessLeague.io.

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Lauren Costella - Lauren is a change agent, communicator, leader and passionate champion for Customer Success. When she’s not working as the VP of Customer Success for Medrio, you can find her serving as an advisor for The Success League, a board member for the Customer Success Network, and blogging on the CS Playlist. Lauren has her MA and BA from Stanford University. She was a former USA National swim team member and enjoys staying active in the Bay Area.