How to think like a leader, not a manager: 3 ways to build a culture of trust

A person sits in a room in a high rise building surrounded by glass windows.

How do you make sure everyone in your organization feels valued, takes pride in the work they do, and stays aligned with strategic objectives? According to recent polling data from 3,750 global knowledge workers in our State of Work report, the answer is clear. Leaders need to make sure each individual can see how their work contributes to the company’s highest mission. In other words, it all comes down to transparency.

As Workfront CEO Alex Shootman writes in his book, Done Right, “The vision of your organization must be transparent: clear, consistent, and well understood inside and outside the business. And, as author and consultant Simon Sinek has explained, the best visions start with clarity about why you’re doing what you’re doing, not just what you’re doing or how.”

The clarity of vision that Alex describes is an essential ingredient if you want to build a workforce that’s so intrinsically motivated that your only job is to provide the tools and then get out of the way. But it’s not the only kind of clarity you need. You also need objective, team, and customer transparency, which are described as follows in Alex’s book:

Achieving transparent leadership in each of these areas is obviously a complicated undertaking that requires the right technology, competent and unified leaders, a supportive culture, and the right leadership mindset. But for the purposes of this article, I’d like to focus on that last component—the leadership mindset—because without it, none of the rest is possible. Drawing on stats from the State of Work report as well as my own experience, I’d like to offer three ideas for how to be more open and transparent as a leader to increase visibility and alignment across the organization.

1. Believe in your people.

In Alex’s book, he describes two leadership worldviews. “Some leaders believe people go to work with the intent to do their best. Other leaders take the view that people’s prevailing instinct is to shirk.” He goes on to conclude, “I believe people are generally good and want to do great work—work that matters.” As it turns out, our State of Work supports Alex’s conclusion.

Your team members, by a wide margin, aren’t there only to punch a clock and pay the bills. Take a look at the numbers: 91% of respondents say they are proud of their work, 89% believe their role is important, and 78% say they’re in it for more than just a paycheck. We also asked them which word most closely represents their feelings about their work. The word “accountable” was by far the most popular answer, followed by “harmonious/connected.” Bringing up the rear were more negative attributes like “inconsistent/unpredictable,” “uncoordinated/disconnected,” and “unmeasured.”

These results show that, as a leader of marketers, you can trust that your team members truly care about big-picture objectives. They want to make a difference. Almost two-thirds of them say they’d prefer to be rewarded based on their actual results, rather than on how many deliverables they can crank out or how quickly they crank them out.

Whether you’ve adopted the first leadership worldview (that people want to do their best) or the second one Alex describes (that people are trying to skate by), your mindset will be transparent to those you lead. It fundamentally shapes the climate and culture of your team.

Heidi Melin quote

“The first leadership outlook creates a culture of trust, collaboration, and innovation,” Alex writes. “The second creates a workplace where everyone looks over their shoulder and refuses to try new things for fear of failing.” Which environment sounds better to you?

2. Think like a leader, not a manager.

Mindset matters. It affects how you show up in your role each and every day. That’s why I believe in the importance of viewing yourself as a leader—not as a manager, even if that word is a part of your title. The managers who may report to you should view themselves as leaders, too.

What’s the difference between the two? A manager manages what’s going on around them. They shape and guide the way work is done, with a focus on the present, informed by the past. A leader, on the other hand, is focused on the path ahead. A leader has a forward-looking and transparent vision that invites others to pick up their heads too.

When you choose to lead instead of manage, you are building one of the most valuable skills anyone can develop. Having spent three decades as a marketing leader, I can say that the ability to lead across organizational and functional boundaries is the one skill I look for most when hiring, promoting, or rewarding my team members. In my world, the way to earn greater degrees of responsibility and status is to participate actively and visibly on your team, show the way forward rather than handing out directions, forge a work style that others want to emulate, always be aware of your example, and follow through with consistency and integrity.

3. Be transparent about decision-making.

As encouraging as the employee engagement statistics I previously shared may be, the State of Work report also revealed clear opportunities for improvement and growth, particularly in the area of leadership decision-making. Less than half (49%) of modern knowledge workers believe that their leaders make decisions based on data. Meanwhile, more than a quarter (28%) believe assumptions and anecdotal evidence are the main driver of leadership decisions, while another quarter (25%) have no clue how leaders arrive at their conclusions.

We’ve established the importance of leaders believing in their people. Well, people need to believe in their leaders too, and they can’t authentically do that if they’re kept in the dark about how critical decisions are made, especially the ones that affect how they work and what they work on, day in and day out.

Work process and work data must be as transparent as possible. Work management technology was not developed solely so leaders could keep tabs on the work happening below them. The upward visibility enabled by enterprise work management platforms is equally important, as it keeps everyone more informed, connected, empowered, and unified. When all data and work activities are centralized in a platform, all team members have equal access to the continuous context they need to remain focused on the company’s most important strategic objectives.

The benefits of transparency.

In his book, Alex quoted Mark McGinnis, founder of SEAL Leadership, Inc. and a former Navy SEAL commander, who said: “The best leaders are the ones who figure out real fast that they have unbelievably talented people working with them, and if they just point them in the right direction, give them enough information, put them in positions that play to their strengths, and shield them from their personal weaknesses, the likelihood of success goes way up.”

I believe this wholeheartedly. Based on the data, not only is your trust in your people completely warranted, it’s also crystal clear that your leadership mentality is far more transparent than you may think. How you feel about your team members will be apparent in the way you conduct yourself every day: whether you choose to lead or to manage, whether you show as much transparency in your decision-making as you expect your direct reports to show in theirs, whether you reward people based on output or on actual outcomes, and whether you’re willing to increase organizational visibility across the board—so everyone has an equal opportunity to know their role, believe that it matters, and feel pride in their work.