by Rich Hein

How to Build Trust as a New IT Executive

Mar 04, 201410 mins
CIOIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Whether you're a new IT executive who just got promoted up the ranks or a new hire entering the organization, earning the trust of your co-workers and direct reports should an important part of your strategy.

Making the move to a management position or the executive level isn’t easy. You’ve got to get the job done, but you don’t want to alienate the coworkers and friends that you’ve built relationships with over the years.

It’s a tricky transition with many pitfalls that have sent many good IT pros back to the drawing board. To help you make the transition we spoke with leadership experts, career consultants and CIOs to find out what it takes to build trust while moving forward to meet overall business objectives.

Building Trust as a New Leader

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.” More than 150 years later, that still rings true in the world of IT and leadership in general. In an IT organization no one person can do it all. Getting the job done requires working with others, compromise and, of course, trust.

Today’s leadership style is no longer a command-and-control situation. It’s about empowering those around you to do their best work and in order to do that you have to first earn their trust.

“Trust may be the most important component of a leader’s effectiveness. Without trust, employees simply won’t put forth their best efforts. Without the trust of peers and senior staff, an executive will find it much more challenging to get their cooperation when needed,” says Gordon Wishon, CIO of Arizona State University. Earning people’s trust requires hard work, honesty and consistency. Like anything worth doing in life, having a plan or strategy is always helpful.

Be a Great Listener

Another key component of trust building, according to experts, is being a great listener. “It takes time to earn trust. It requires active listening, with lots of open-ended questions, with gentle probing for clarity, and testing your own understanding by asking more questions in context of what you are learning from them,” says Bob Kantor, Executive IT coach and CIO mentor at Kantor Consulting Group.

Niraj Jetly, CIO/COO at NutriSavings, agrees: “I engage with my team by listening to them describe their motivations, needs and aspirations. I invite them to paint the vision of tomorrow and solicit feedback on where they would like to contribute in the team’s success. I also share with them our regular business goals and encourage them to ask questions to attempt and engage in conversations. I make attempts to expose them to facets of business that they would not see or comprehend otherwise. Based on these exercises, I am able to outline individualized pathways of success based on their preferences.”

Meet As Many People As You Can

Unless you are walking into a crisis-mode situation, you will normally have ample time as a new executive to meet the essential players. Use this time wisely. “Identify the people you want to establish a trust relationship with,” says Pamela Rucker, chair of the CIO Executive Council’s Executive Women in IT.

When getting started you’ve got to meet as many people as you can, figure out who the key players are and identify all of the key stakeholders. “It’s important to take the time to meet as many employees as possible, and especially the middle management as soon as possible. While the senior leadership team has responsibility for implementing the strategy, its middle management that ultimately gets things done,” says Wishon.

Once that strategy is formed, however, you should take every opportunity to explain the strategy to all employees, says Wishon. Defining and explaining strategy is one of the chief duties of a good executive, he says.

Set up both one-on-one and group meetings where appropriate. Ask your manager to identify peers that you should get to know. “During these sessions it would be a good idea to pay special attention to their expectations, prior challenges or successes from this role. Ask for their suggestions on short-, medium- and long-term focus of your position. After every session, assess if your evaluation of their role matches the “published organizational structure,” says Jetly.

The organizational chart is a great way to understand how different departments and personnel will interact and influence what your deliverables are, Jetly says. “Spend time understanding the organization chart and assess how each position would relate to your role. Keep in mind that almost every company and group would have a published and an “un-published organization chart”. You will need to rely on your intuition to build your own “un-published chart.”

Solutions Don’t Always Come From Where You Expect

You shouldn’t focus only on the senior people, experts warn. You should also be talking to and, more importantly, listening to the people who are actually doing the work. These people often know what the real heart of the issue is, but they have to feel that you will do something positive with this information.

“Employees will only level with someone they trust. First, they have to trust that their confidence will be respected. Second, they have to trust that they will not be penalized by sharing the information. Finally, they have to believe that something positive will come from leveling with you. Employees generally raise delicate issues in the hope that someone in authority will improve the situation,” says Lauren Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and author of the book, “You Raised Us — Now Work With Us.”

Getting Peers to Level With You

If you are going to make a difference in your team or organization, you first have to wrap your arms around the problems at hand. To get to the heart of the problem you have to get the people who are actually responsible for performing whatever process or evolution you are trying to improve and get them to clue you in on what the real issues at play are.

“If you want to get employees to level with you with what’s going on in the organization, then you need to open up about your organization. The more open and honest you are, the more people will trust you with information,” says Dan Schawbel author of the book, author of Promote Yourself.

Know Your Team

Your immediate team is comprised of the people who will either lift you up or cast you off. You’ve got to share your vision with them of where you want your IT department to be and lay out your plan on how you are all going to get there.

You’ve got to get to know them to help understand what’s important to them and what their motivations are. They have to feel like you value them, more than just the work they do but who they are, what they like and so on.

Engagement, according to Rucker, is most sincere and long-lasting when it centers not only on company issues, but on areas of interest outside the company as well.

“For instance, “says Rucker, “when you inquire and care about the soccer tournament that your colleague’s son is playing in, it tells him that you value his interests, and knowing that can cause him to be more participative in the future. People want to feel like they matter, and that you appreciate them being on the team. When you feel like your leader cares about what matters to you, it makes you feel better about your leader, and feeling better about your leader makes you more engaged.”

Dealing With Prior Relationships

A common pitfall that many new executives encounter relates to prior relationships with coworkers. Making the move to a leadership role can shake the steadiest relationship if it’s not done with tact and forethought. This is often one of the most difficult challenges associated with making the transition to a leadership position.

“Friendships with previous coworkers are often threatened when someone fails to recognize the obligation of the leader to make decisions that are in the best interest of the organization regardless of the potential impact on individual workers, whether or not a friendship exists,” says Wishon.

Clearly, it’s important that a new leader not appear to give special or preferential treatment on the basis of friendships. A great leader makes decisions on the merits of the arguments and the benefits to the organization.

“The appearance of preferential treatment in decision-making can have a devastating impact on the level of trust between the executive and employees. The new executive may want to have a conversation with previous coworkers about what the company is expecting in terms of decision-making, reinforcing the value of the friendship but making clear that the company’s best interest must drive future decisions,” says Wishon.

Entering Company in Crisis Mode

Entering a new position where the department or organization itself is in a state of crisis adds a whole other dimension to this topic. New executives who have many times have been the doers or the people who actually get the job done want to jump right in and start making changes, but this is often a path fraught with danger.

“Employees (and the CEO) in a company in crisis are looking for the new executive to act decisively to make change, but the need for speed doesn’t relieve the executive from taking the time to assess the situation, to gain his/her own opinion of needed changes. But this might be a much quicker assessment than otherwise,” says Wishon.

In crisis mode, new executives have to do what they can to allay the fears of a struggling team in a crisis environment. Whatever the root of the crisis it has likely led the employees to believe one of the following:

  • Another crisis may be coming.
  • The new leader won’t know how to address it.
  • The new leader won’t recognize my value.

“New executives need to recognize that when a company’s in crisis mode, there’s already an environment of distrust present, and that current environment has nothing to do with them. In situations like these, it’s vitally important that the leader not only display the components of trust-building mentioned before, but that they display an understanding of crisis management, how to get ahead of trouble, how to manage fallout and how to work with their existing team to address concerns,” says Rucker.

Once You Gain Trust, You Must Maintain It

Trust is the glue that holds great teams together and the foundation upon which new teams are built upon, says Rucker. “When a new leader takes on a new role, the existing team doesn’t know what to expect. Their opinions are largely built on lore at this point, and they’re waiting to have an individual experience that either confirms or denies what they’ve heard,” says Rucker.

Gaining trust is one thing; keeping people’s trust is another thing. People who work for you need to feel that you are in their corner. That if they bring a real problem to you that you will listen and do the right thing.

“Employees need to know that they can be vulnerable with you and you won’t use the information they share against them. Likewise, the senior staff needs to know that they can tell you something and you won’t speak a word about it to your team, no matter how close you are to them. One breach of this confidence can ruin your executive brand and can cause you to be a pariah amongst your peers, so don’t ever do it, says Rucker.

Follow CIO on LinkedIn

Rich Hein is a senior writer for He covers IT careers. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.