Thursday, January 29, 2009

Courage Wanted: Inquire Within

I'm just like you: I know lots of people, some very close to me, who are struggling and even suffering through the economic turbulence right now. Thus far I have been exceptionally lucky - I've lived through an acquisition and survived 7 rounds of layoffs at my company. The only thing that I am certain of now is that there will be an 8th, 9th, 10th, and probably a 25th round. If you think for a second that this is not frightening, you're nuts.

It is entirely clear to me that what is happening today is the birth of opportunity. This morning I stumbled across the 2006 Edelman Trust Barometer, a survey that measures influential people's trust in business, government, media, and NGOs. In that year, trust had largely recovered from the scandals of the early 2000s. Then I found this report of the 2009 study, which shows that trust in all these institutions has fallen to all-time lows. Only 17% of people now believe the statements made by large-company CEOs. Richard Edelman, the study's author, states that economic recovery will be slowed because "no institution has captured the trust that business has lost."

It seems to me that opportunity often knocks so softly that it's more easily ignored, but to me this sounds like it's trying to kick the door right off its hinges. The only question is, how?

The answer is amazingly simple, and it starts with gratitude. Imagine the CEO of one of the few remaining, large, national banks taking a moment to ground himself in gratitude for the opportunity to serve millions of people. Imagine, moreover, that CEO spending an hour or two with all his direct reports to talk about what they truly provide their customers: security, opportunity, growth, protection, support. "If we deliver these things, and deliver them well," that CEO might say, "then the market will reward us with some profit. The fact that we have this opportunity to serve - and potentially to prosper by serving others well - is a sacred gift. Let's be grateful we have it, and do what's right."

The next step is to summon the courage to be transparent. If 50% or more business leaders fail the first test of gratitude for the opportunity to serve - and I have no basis for that number so please weigh in with your thoughts - then at least 90% of the remaining half will fail this test of transparency. Especially in financial services, transparency has been anathema for years. Transparency, in my view, is the only thing that will speed our economic recovery and the only thing that will help us to build a sustainable recovery.

Being transparent will require courage because the news at the outset will be far worse than anyone has yet admitted. Everyone in America - and perhaps every adult worldwide - knows this already, and that is why the Edelman Trust Barometer shows that trust in major institutions has fallen to all-time lows. There is a tremendous paradox in front of us: the first financial institutions that truly come clean about what's on their books may very well fail. Yet these very same institutions - and more importantly, the people in them - will also be the first to succeed in establishing trust, which is the entire foundation of economic growth.

Trust and trustworthy behavior may not depend on gratitude, though I believe they do. They certainly depend on courage, and I believe that for leaders of our large institutions, the quantum leaps in courage that are now required to restore transparency and trust can find their source in gratitude for the opportunity to serve.

Opportunity is hammering at our door right now. The people and institutions that create trusted connections with others through transparency and integrity with their true purpose will profit most from that opportunity. First these institutions must sort through the paradox that transparency appears to present. Those who navigate with gratitude, courage, and service as their pole stars will win.

What do YOU think?