I became less trustworthy when I became a CEO. Here’s how to rebuild trust

Perry Maddox

CEO, Restless Development

This article was originally posted on Just Open Leader’s website on 29 July 2020.

Perry Maddox explores why charity leaders are not highly trusted and explains how we can rebuild trust in our leadership by learning from our people.

I became less trustworthy when I became a CEO.


That’s what the latest polling from Ipsos Mori says. They surveyed people, reading them a list of professions and asking “would you generally trust them to tell the truth, or not?”


65% of people generally trust an ordinary person in the street to tell the truth. 


Only 45% generally trust a charity chief executive, slightly edging out bankers at 43%.  


20 percentage points less trustworthy than a random person in the street.  Virtually the same trust as in bankers.




How’d it come to this?


Charity, non-profit, NGO… whatever you call them, leadership here should be among the most trustworthy out there.  After all, we’ve dedicated our careers and much of our lives to making the world a better place. Yet, less than half of people out there trust someone in my role to tell the truth.  


Open the papers in the past few years, and it’s easy to understand why. Aggressive fundraising appeals pressuring an elderly person to suicide.  A virtual catalogue of leadership and governance failures taking down a charity who’d received £40 million from the government. Sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups. Toxic work cultures with staff at the breaking point, under pressure and unheard. All white boardrooms.


No wonder people trust charity leaders about as much as they do bankers. Those are the types of headlines you’d expect from some soulless corporate monster, not the charities full of people trying to do good in this world.   


While those headlines are far from representative of the entire charity world, they’ve tarnished us all.  


In each of those stories, a leader or a board knowingly or unknowingly looked the other way.  In every case, if people were better listened to or supported, the problems could have been avoided.


To Rebuild Trust, Start at Home.


To rebuild trust in leadership, we must start at home. 


How do we as leaders build cultures and organisations where staff and partners can speak up, where leaders can’t ignore uncomfortable truths, where such problems simply cannot go unnoticed?


It starts with asking and listening.


We use a range of ways to keep an eye on what matters most in Restless Development, including strong boards, 360 degree reviews, listening exercises, debriefs and an annual, anonymous staff survey. We use this survey principally to listen and learn from our people about how we’re doing across our agency.  It holds us to account and tells us where we need to go. 


Last year over 98 percent of staff said that they trust our leadership, both nationally and globally. 


To put that in perspective, we’re talking about three hundred diverse people across 10 countries and probably a hundred locations.  Virtually all of whom trust our leadership.


While an annual staff survey is different than a survey of people in the street, this is more than double the trust that the Ipsos Mori survey assigned to charity leaders.  


But why?


What People Want in Leaders.


More recently, I ran a series of leadership studies to understand how well we grow leaders in our work. In one question I asked our people to choose from a list which leadership traits they valued most.  Ten options, all great traits of leaders, were given, and respondents were asked to choose their top three. 


The idea was to understand what our people value most in a leader. Here’s what they said:


  • Accountability. The top answer stood about all others, selected by 69% of respondents.  By a huge margin, our people most value leaders who “take ownership, accept consequences and are responsible.”  
  • Drive. Second at 46%,staff identified leaders who are “passionate, results-oriented, showing initiative and striving for excellence”.
  • Collaboration & Integrity.  Virtually tied for third place, these two answers defined leaders who are “cooperative, friendly, open-minded, and interconnected” and “authentic, candid, principled, consistent and transparent”


Put it all together, and the picture is clear.  


Let’s Rebuild Trust in Leadership.


Our people value – and trust – leaders who hold themselves and their organisations accountable, who get the job done, who are real people who stand for what’s right, who are thoughtful and responsible, and who work with others as equals. 


If that’s not our calling as leaders – to role model leadership and to build organisations that are accountable, collaborative, driven by excellent results, and of high integrity – I don’t know that is. 

I’d wager that the folks answering the Ipsos Mori survey would agree.