How to Earn Trust as a Leader

Recent research from Edelman reveals that trust is at a low in 2021. Individuals are not trusting their governments, CEOs or nonprofit organizations. And in a world still suffering from racial injustice but beginning to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, trust is key to our overall success.

In this solo episode, Donald shares actionable steps we can take to build trust as leaders in our organizations and communities.

Edelman Trust Barometer


Jason Gillikin:  Welcome to the Donald Thompson podcast. I’m Jason Gillikin, CEO of Earfluence, which produces this show.  We’re going to call this one a solo episode because I’m going to give Don an article that came out recently and tee him up on what this all means. So Don. How’s it going today?

Donald Thompson: Good man. Good to see ya. I’m ready to kick it with one  of my good friends. Yeah.

Jason Gillikin: Well, that’s awesome. Well, I trust you. But what we found out from this article that I’m about to give you is that Edelman  the research group, found that people are not trusting a lot of different entities in 2021. So they are not trusting governments. They are not trusting CEOs. They are not trusting nonprofit organizations. Trust is way down. So on this episode, I wanted you to unpack that and figure out, well, why is that? And what can we do as leaders about that?

Donald Thompson: Look forward to it, man. It’s a, It’s a good topic.

It’s a big topic because no matter what industry we’re in, the ability to speak and communicate to your team, to your stakeholders and be believed, affects how productive you can actually be.  And people have legitimately been lied to, right?

Like,  everything has an alternative universe of truth these days. So think about this, right? Think about our business environment. If you have four oranges, and you say to someone, how many oranges do we have? I think there’s four. Well, if the person thinks politically different than you, if the person thinks different than you in business, then now in our current business environment, people will say, well, are those actually four oranges?

What is the definition of an orange? Is it an orange because of its color? Is it an orange because of its taste? If you prove to me that those are oranges, then I will stipulate that there may possibly be four oranges. What?!? What -what are you, what are we talking about now? So everything is through a lens of the tribe that you’re in when we talk about truth. Everything is through the lens of the outcome that you want from a conversation. So I do think at a macro level that we become so polarized through our politics, through some of the racial inequities that we’re dealing with our society through the pandemic. Think about something as simple as a mask.

And then we have this entire conversation. Is the mask good or is the mask bad? Is the mask against my rights or do I have the right, not to wear a mask and infect and hurt and kill other people? And so the environment has got so muddied, leaders are now caught in this tsunami of misinformation and so instead of people listening and trusting and building that powerful future together in an organization, there’s a natural inclination. Is this person lying to me also? And that’s the backdrop of which we’re having this conversation and that’s the challenge. Now, what can we do about it? Right?

One of the things I try to do is to be both authentic and consistent. You may not like Donald Thompson. You  may not agree with everything that I say. That’s actually likely, I say a lot of stuff.  However, if you watch and listen, both behavior and words, I try to be consistent. I try to make sure that the words that I use, the way that I build a business or an organization, the way that I lead, the way that I coach and mentor is consistent across organizations, is consistent across podcasts that I do, is consistent across the things that I write, and how I treat people. Now that doesn’t mean I don’t have areas to improve, but you can develop some level of trust, credibility, and reputation based on the consistency of your behavior over time, number one. And then number two, it’s more important than ever to manage, build and grow your personal brand. And that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be someone that wants to be a speaker or a teacher or a consultant, but you have to manage your brand as a leader so that people within your organization, people that are looking to come to work for your company, have a way that they can research your credibility, leveraging third party points of view so that they can make a better assessment than one single point of information like most people use to decide who to trust.

So, you know, one of the things is the ability to lose trust by inaction, by lack of engagement. And CEOs today that, you know, I hear this a lot, quite frankly. This box that they feel that they’re in, that if they do something and don’t get it perfectly right: penalized. If I do nothing, I lose trust: penalized. If I do something with good intentions, but it lands wrong for this group versus this group: penalized. So there’s a paralyzation for leaders in terms of what to do, how to say it and how to articulate it. So I definitely understand the, the issue. I think that, you know, being silent is certainly a choice and silence speaks.

One of the things that I try to encourage people that I’m working with and relative to being truthful, building credibility, whether or not to speak out in this moment is realize the context of the environment that we’re in. The Edelman trust barometer report described that 86% of respondents expect CEOs to speak out on social issues.

So if the macro environment has changed its expectation of leaders, but then the leader remained silent, you’re losing ground. Now whether you want to speak out or not, that’s your opinion and your right. Whether you feel like you’re handcuffed in what you can say again, I get it. But the numbers say that the expectation of people is that leaders have a perspective, a point of view on what’s happening in our community, in our country, in our business environment. And so what I like to try to let people know is you don’t have to have the right answer. You can talk authentically about what you’re trying to learn, what you’re trying to improve, and what you’re researching and investigating.

And if I tell somebody in an authentic way, I understand the racial inequity that’s going on in our country, but I don’t understand it well enough to have an informed point of view just yet. So what I’m doing and I’ve tasked my team to do is educate, listen, engage with people of underserved communities so that we can learn more and become better.

And as I learned more and become better, we will have more of a global statement of where we stand. But right now we’re in the investigation phase. Now for some people that still may not be enough, but that is an example of a leader, authentically sharing where they are and then what they personally are going to do.

And those that still exist in our country – and there are many of us -that have rational points of view, appreciate people that are trying the best they can with the tools they have in the environment that they’re in. I was talking to one of our guests, Tom Ruhe, and  he’s the executive director of  NC IDEA.

And we were  talking about this very topic of leadership in this moment and that trust factor and that willingness to speak out. And one of the things that he said that was really powerful is, you can’t worry about the haters who are going to hate on you anyway. You actually have to make the decisions based on the constituents that are truly moveable and have some semblance of rationality with where you’re trying to move the organization or your company.

So then what is the leader’s responsibility to be vocal in a moment where they’re afraid? It’s to try and baby steps are okay. There’s a concept in business. There’s a concept in sports,  where you crawl, walk, run. So what does crawl mean to a business owner? Well, sometimes it’s just as simple on social media sharing a piece of content written by someone else that you appreciate and you learn from while you’re finding your voice. While this is isn’t a, a plug so to speak, but maybe it’s a shameless plug- if you’re going to do PR content for your company, why not have it reviewed by The Diversity Movement? So instead of saying nothing, you work with a third party organization, that’s focused on diversity equity inclusion, that’s focused on the right language and temperament and tone.

And instead of working in your internal walls, that probably is homogeneous, which is the problem, have somebody help you test run your communication. So even if it’s slower to put something out, you don’t have nothing. You have something that gives you a process to move forward in the future. And here’s the most important thing. People are more concerned about what you say, but people are watching what you did.

Your culture is the DNA of the organization. You know, there’s a, I forget who said it, but it’s a popular business phrase that culture eats strategy for lunch. It’s harder to rebuild a culture once something’s baked in, then building in excellence, building in belonging, building in openness, building in high standard, for sure from the bottom up.

And so one of the things that we are doing in partnering with The Diversity Movement quite frankly, is that startups may not have a huge checkbook for DEI programming and that’s okay. But think about small businesses that get large. Think about how many businesses are created with a powerful startup ecosystem.

So instead of thinking about startups as individuals, we’re thinking about the startup community as an ecosystem, an ecosystem of innovation, an ecosystem of change. And most people that are entrepreneurial in their DNA, which is why they launched a startup, which is why they went to work for an emerging company are the same type of future leaders that we want to influence.

So even though they might not have the numbers of big company X, the engagement is higher. The impact potential is higher. The openness to new ways of thinking is higher. So we think it’s our responsibility to make sure that we have programming that’s packaged and right sized from an economic standpoint, that startups can start building culture with a DEI lens upon inception.

So that, then as they grow from three people to 10 people, to a hundred people, they start to build a beacon of examples of what’s next level leadership because we’ve instituted diversity equity inclusion from the ground up. And so I think startups are a great avenue for leaders to develop that perspective of when to speak out, but more importantly, how to build culture in a way that is not only inclusive, but creates that winning organization that everyone’s chasing.

And so we’re really excited about our work and our goal is to create  some very packaged solutions for startups to where the economics is not a reason not to try. And that’s something that’s very important to us.

I don’t want to profess to have the answers for the lack of trust and every leader, every institution.

But what I will say is that trust can be rebuilt, but it’s a slow process.  And so anytime you are rebuilding trust in my case, I’ll  use me as an example. Early in my career, I mean, anybody that knows me even a little bit, I have lots of opinions. I have a strong personality. I’m pretty direct. And I have a standard of what I expect, and this can all come across as super compelling to some- that’d be amazing to work with DT- or it could come across a little harsh or a little too much to deal with right. So there’s people that love it and people not so much.

And so, as an early leader, I didn’t have the maturity to balance my commitment, to balance my intensity, with the audience that I was working with or talking to. I had one speed. And so I had to take a very serious walk, talk, rebuild, and say, all right,  what do I want to accomplish? Right, because nobody’s trying to hurt people on purpose typically.

Right? There’s some people do, but like in business, like it’s a, it’s a personality issue. It’s a perspective issue, but here’s the thing though. I had to admit there was a better way of working than the way I was doing it, number one. Number two, I had to own that in terms of not my words only, but a behavior change that people could see.

And then I had to demonstrate that behavior change over time. Now, some people that work with me many, many years ago have the same image of where I was 20 years ago. I can’t fix that. I’m not even trying to fix that. But I am trying to be better with the next person I meet, the next team I lead, the next deal that I do.

I’m trying to do what I can to be better than I was 10 years ago, to be better than I was five years ago. So in the case of my personality perspective, it wasn’t because I was saying things that were off the charts from a gender perspective or from a race perspective. For me, it was the intensity of it.  It was a little too quick to the trigger in terms of maybe a little too harsh, but it still had a negative impact. So it still relates to the subject matter. But to rebuild my brand,I had to  take personal responsibility for being better. I had to learn a different way to communicate and I had to care enough, right?

And this is for all of us as leaders, I had to care enough to be willing to change. There was two things that did that. Number one, as my businesses continued to grow, the thing I thought about that a business coach told me one time is, where could you be if your people skills were a little bit better, a little bit sharper?

See, I was thinking, all right, my way’s working, I’m good. Right? I’m not the problem. They’re the problem. They’re not strong enough. They’re not this. They’re not that. But then I was sitting down and I was open and the business coach goes yeah –  but how big a business could you have built? And that scared the shit out of me.

Like, I didn’t wanna hear that. I was like, Whoa, time out, wait. But me being me being that way, it’s hurting me. That’s the same thing today. When CEOs are thinking about, should I say something about social equity? Should I not? Hey, look, all you got to realize is how many gen Z and millennials are now shoppers of your product or people you’re trying to recruit?

And those numbers aren’t changing. And in those numbers that says 67% of that demographic believes that diversity inclusion is important in who they shop with and who they work with. So at a certain point as a CEO, you got to get off of what you think, and you have to realize, wait a minute, if I don’t think differently, my business is going to take a step back.

I’m measured based on the growth and the results of my business. I might want to understand the demographic shifts that are going on in our country so I can make an informed decision about what I say, how I behave, what I do, who I promote, and how I think. And so we all operate from some level of self-interest and that’s okay.

It just makes good business sense to think about how other people feel with the comments that you’re landing. I’ll use an example today. This is another thing in terms of trust So Kristie Davis, she’s been working with me on and off different things for over a decade.

So one of my businesses today, we had a team meeting. And I can get excited about things. Right. Right. And I’m doing my DT thing, right? Like, I’m like, yeah, we’re going to do this. We’ll change the world. DEI Avengers, man. Like changing the world right. And Kristie called me after it was like, hey listen, great meeting. And I was like, Kristie, what did I do wrong?

Cause usually she’s not calling me right after a meeting to be  like,  man this is amazing. So I’m like, okay, what did I do wrong? And she said, well.. she said, let’s not talk about what you did wrong. Let’s just talk about things I’d like you not to say this way again.

And so, so, so we’re on the phone and I’m like, all right, all right. You know, I call myself a competitive  learner so that  means I got to take  it like I give it, you know what I mean? Like, and the reason I’m using trust is who in your company, who in your companies -when you move across a line, will pick up the phone and call you and give you the feedback you need in the moment, or right after the moment so that you can correct that small thing that you thought was a little thing, but that landed wrong with somebody on your team that you care about.

And I was so appreciative that as I’ve grown the companies that I work with, I have people that trust me enough to give me clear feedback when I need to improve. So the other things that leaders need when they’re thinking about what they should say is who in your organization is a good barometer that you’ll listen to, that has a pulse for the rank and file for the team, and that will let you know when things don’t land well. My job is if  Kristie picks up the phone and calls me, I listen. And Kristie’s job is to tell me things I don’t see so I don’t keep messing up unintentionally because I’m not going to change the fact that I’m all about growth, right? The Diversity Movement  went from zero to a multi-million dollar business in under two years.

That’s not because I kind of hang tight and tiptoed through the tulips and kind of hang out building a business. My brand  is growth. That means along that growth path, I’m going to rub, a couple of people, you know, it’s, it could be interesting. But that doesn’t mean you consistently do it, you don’t course correct, and you don’t try to be better. And so I don’t come from any place of perfection, right? When I’m talking to other leaders, I come from a place of progress. And that’s really all anybody should ask of another is progress. No matter what you do, some people think it’s not fast enough. It’s not this. You can’t use that as your barometer, you have to have a personal commitment to improve.

And if you do a little bit every day, like I try to do. Then over a period of time, you’ll get better, you’ll get stronger, and you’ll get a little bit more courageous in those moments in time where you got to take a little risk with your brand to do the right thing, to engage in a moment that’s transformational in our lives.


So what I would encourage people to do when we think about trust, and another thing that I think is really important is you have to document what you believe so that people can measure your behaviors against those documents. So that’s where I do think your mission, your values, your statements, give you a stake in the ground.

And then as leaders, we have to make sure that our statements and our behaviors begin to line up over time. And I want to encourage people that, you know, and I make this offer, right? Like as business leaders and CEOs, sometimes you need a safe place to have a dialogue with somebody about some of these things that is not directly on your payroll.

And that’s one of the things that I do well for leaders, because even though I can- I have lots of opinions  and always have thoughts. I also have a pretty good active listening component. I have a pretty good ability to slow down and really see different points of view. And we need people in our lives and our businesses that aren’t judging us for where we are on our journey, but encouraging us when we need to do more, are critiquing us thoughtfully but firmly when we need to do less of something or not at all, and are cheering for us when we are making strides in areas that we’re uncomfortable. And so I think a lot of the reason that CEOs are hesitant is because they don’t have somebody that’s helping them find their true north in these moments.

Because most of the people that are listening to work for them or have stock in the company that they’re in, and all that’s fine. I’m not judging anyone. I’m just saying like sometimes,  like they have a lot at stake when they’re doing things and saying things and if they get it wrong, there’s backlash. And leaders in that position need sounding boards before they make the statement, not after. After is damage control. After it’s crisis management. But before if you’re thoughtful and you got a good sounding board or two or three, you can do more than you think you can without creating unnecessary hot water.

The bottom line is, if you don’t have trust, if you’re not building and expanding your trust base, you can only take your company so far.

Trust is the foundation of how you recruit, reward, and retain top flight talent. We’re in the process of raising funds for The Diversity Movement. Those that are writing checks to us to pursue this vision, have to trust. And we have to honor that trust to  use those funds in the way that we committed to. Everybody understands risk. Everybody understands business. It’s not what I’m talking about, but if I looked an investor in the eye and they write down a check and I’ve told them that money is going to be used for product development, for marketing, this is our game plan.

Then I’ve got to make those words and those behaviors align with that trust that is tied to money, that that person earned,  that person could do other things with that money. And so trust affects the way people relate to you, the way people align with your vision and the level of trust and the growth of trust aligns with your ability to scale your organization into the future. So it’s something that I take very, very seriously  and try to be better every single day.

Full Episode Transcript

The Donald Thompson Podcast is hosted by Walk West CEO, The Diversity Movement CEO, mentor, investor, and Diversity and Inclusion Consultant Donald Thompson.

Music for this episode provided by Jensen Reed from his song, “You Can’t Stop Me”.

The Donald Thompson Podcast is edited and produced by Earfluence. For more on how to engage your community or build your personal brand through podcasting, visit

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