How Wikimedia Foundation, Coursera and others are building trust, coaching their managers and keeping their employees

When I wrote The Alliance with my co-authors Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh, we had a vision of transforming the world of work by helping companies and employees understand how to build stronger, longer, more honest relationships with each other. To help others adopt that vision, we co-founded Allied Talent with Chip Joyce, to guide organizations and managers on how to apply the principles defined in our book. Since then, Allied Talent has worked with dozens of companies both in Silicon Valley and around the world, such as LinkedIn, Coursera, Microsoft and SAP.

I was recently asked at a New York Times event on the Future of Work to talk about what we’ve learned from the companies who have adopted the Alliance Framework. Here are lessons and stories we can share with a broader audience.

Trust is central to healthy workplaces

According to various research, trust in the workplace — the proportion of employees who say they have a “high level of trust in management and the organization” they work for — is near an all-time low.

Anna Stillwell from the Wikimedia Foundation (the keepers of the Wikipedia) described the consequences of such a reality the following way: “A lack of trust and a lot of process is the worst of all scenarios. Disengagement is high. Work is slow and frustrating. Organizational goals suffer. Trust is the antidote…Trust allows us to scale without relying on process-heavy bureaucracy."

In our view, one key driver of lack of trust at work is that employees do not feel like they can be open and honest with their managers about the the work at hand and especially their own career development. Anna brought in Allied Talent to help address this challenge, and said afterward, “Our people were able to trust Allied Talent quickly and open up about their struggles. As a result, real learning happened and managers left trusting one another.”

With our new partner CultureAmp, we’re helping clients assess the current levels of trust inside their organization. And then we’re training the managers of those companies on how to lead honest conversations about both company objectives and personal career development.

Career conversations are crucial for recruiting and engaging top talent

Recruiting, engaging, and retaining entrepreneurial employees depends in large part on a manager’s ability to discuss and facilitate career development. However, recruiters, managers, and executives are often poorly-equipped to lead these conversations. Toby Murdock, the founder and CEO of Boulder-based content marketing company Kapost, set out to fix that. His goal: to make his company the best place in Colorado to launch and accelerate a career in high tech. He worked with Allied Talent to make the Alliance Framework a foundational element of both Kapost’s culture and talent strategy — check out the company “Culture” page. Thanks to a compelling employee value proposition around career transformation, Toby has successfully recruited entrepreneurial employees into the company who might have otherwise been out of reach.

Once at your company, those entrepreneurial employees require high-trust 1:1 conversations with their manager. A paradox of The Alliance is that, as a manager, acknowledging that an employee might move to another company someday is a display of honesty that’s necessary in career conversations. It’ll also help you truly understand your employee’s values and aspirations. Building trust through honesty, and having a better handle on what your employee really wants, are key ingredients to improving employee retention — lengthening job tenures.

"Tours of duty" serves as useful shared language on teams

For healthy, growing companies, we’ve found that organizing mutual commitments as "Tours of Duty" provides a shared language that allows leaders, managers, and employees to talk about how to structure work together. Dan Berger, the founder and CEO of Social Tables, a Washington DC-based provider of collaborative event software, describes The Alliance as his company’s“go-to framework” and has defined Tours of Duty for each member of his executive team. Tours of Duty help ensure that managers and employees are in agreement about an employee’s mission, what success looks like, and how completing that mission will advance the employee’s career. Lila Ibrahim, the Chief Business Officer of online education leader Coursera, reports that these ideas and language have led to conversations that are “more direct, transparent, authentic.”

Managers often don’t know how to be great, but they can be taught

A few years ago, according to Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer, a survey of the American workforce revealed that 35% of U.S. employees would forego a significant pay raise in exchange for seeing their direct manager fired. In another report, which reviewed numerous studies on management and leadership, the Center for Creative Leadership concluded that fully 50% of managers are “estimated to be ineffective (that is, a disappointment, incompetent, a mis-hire, or a complete failure) in their current roles.”

There are incompetent managers even in great companies. At a minimum, every company that’s growing is filled with first-time managers who will likely struggle to build trust with their employees. Great leaders are proactive about equipping their managers with the skills and tools they need to succeed.

That what Rami Essaid is doing. He is CEO and co-founder of Distil Networks, a rapidly-growing cybersecurity firm headquartered in Virginia. After working with Allied Talent, he reported, “Managers could have high trust, high quality conversations about career goals, aligning them with the company’s mission, and managing misalignment. The Alliance has helped Distil better align the company and its employees and [the framework] has been woven into our DNA—even called out in our culture statement.”

These aren’t just anecdotes; based on surveys conducted after dozens of Allied Talent workshops, managers who take part feel much more confident in their skills:

  • 68% are more confident "starting a conversation about career development"
  • 84% are more confident "discussing personal goals with my team"
  • 87% are more confident "building trust with my employees"
  • 82% are more confident "speaking about a team member potentially leaving the organization"

As an author, it’s incredibly gratifying to see ideas that started with me, Ben, and Chris — and our various colleagues and friends at LinkedIn and several other companies — turn into tools that are helping leaders build stronger employee relationships, increase engagement, and improve employee retention. Writing a book isn’t the end of the path; it’s just the beginning.

This post was originally published here on April 19, 2016