by Andy Hoffman
This blog entry is cross-posted on Harvard Business Review.
Trust is everything in business, particularly in the construction business. Working in construction, I learned that one crooked contractor can put your entire company in the red so deeply that it could take years to pull yourself out.
I learned it the hard way. I had hired a group of men who were all friends, and who began to think and act as a block. They operated with a single voice that became a challenge to my authority and control on the job. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realized it until it was too late and I found myself losing control of the job site. I spent two weeks dealing with the very difficult process of firing most of them while trying to figure out how to keep the one person from that block that I considered valuable.
By the time the firings were finished, I was demoralized and spent. While meeting with my boss Jack (a more seasoned contractor), said, “I don’t know how the search for new people’s going, but I have someone for you to meet. His name is Frank. He’s an experienced foreman and a good guy.”
My response was immediate, heartfelt and reflected what I had learned. “A good guy? Is that his qualification? My whole perspective on hiring is different now. A guy can be the best carpenter in the world, but if he and I don’t click, if I don’t trust him, I’m not hiring him,” I said.
“Good! Good!” Jack was emphatic. “You’re learning an important lesson! I’ve told you before and I’ll tell you again, trust is everything in this business. Think about it this way. You want two things in the people who work for you. You want people who know their job and you want people you can trust. If they don’t fit either criteria, that’s easy. Fire their ass. If they fit both, you can’t ask for more. Keep ’em. But few people have both. So you’re usually going to have to hire people who have either one or the other. The question is, which do you pick?”
I waited for him to continue, knowing that most of his questions were rhetorical.
“You pick the one you trust. You can’t teach trust. You can teach carpentry but you can’t teach trust. Remember that. You can have the best tradesmen in the world, but if they [betray] you just once, you’re out of business. Surround yourself with people you trust and you’ll never go wrong.” He paused. “And I think you’re starting to get that. You’re learning to use your gut. That’s the only way to tell if you can trust someone. No resume, no long list of jobs, no sweet talking is going to tell you [anything]. You have to feel it.”
How can we teach this? Can MBA’s learn how to feel trust in their gut in a classroom? Henry Mintzberg has been driving the point for years that you can’t teach management entirely in the classroom. Educators need to recognize that experience is necessary; we need to be more creative in designing our learning environments to make the lessons real. One area of innovation lies in augmenting classroom teaching with more client-based projects in which more than a grade is at stake. If students are required to both rely on others (teammates and subcontractors who may be needed to collect data) and present their analysis and results in a forum in which real, actionable conclusions are expected from clients who intend to use them, classroom learnings become put to the test and students will face the real challenges of learning who they can trust.
Their personal success and reputation will depend on it; that’s a better motivation than a grade.