October 12, 2004      



The authorsThis month marks the kickoff our new series of articles called Building Trust on the Way In.

Whether you are building trust in a new role or new situation, or you are already well-established in your role, the steps you take in building trust really aren't so different.

It's just that being new, or walking a specific path for the first time isn't nearly as comfortable a position. While we've already examined the specific steps for building trust in The Trusted Leader, this series of articles is devoted specifically to the defining moments of building trust on the way in.


The Trusted Leader

Previous Issues:

Surviving the Big Mistake

The Virtual Inner Circle

Organizational Sibling Rivalry


Next month's issue: Pass the Humility, Please

Harvard Business Review case study: Succession and Failure, co-authored by Rob Galford. Available directly from HBR

We all care about how we come across when we start in a new job, a new role, or a new initiative. We all know the maxims about first impressions being lasting impressions, and most of us know intuitively that people tend to make judgments on others quickly, and often with insufficient data. Sales research indicates that decisions whether or not to buy from a particular individual are made in less than sixty seconds. As a result of that knowledge, building trust on the way in can be a real struggle, initially because of the performance anxiety it creates.

We are being watched, we are being sized up, we are being examined, poked, prodded, tested from afar, and even judged on a set of unknown criteria by a set of unknown jurists. And while you may be the Jedi Knight or Gladiator who finds that kind of trial exhilarating and energizing (lucky you!), it's anxiety-provoking for the rest of us mortals, no matter how terrific we are.

So how do we manage the entry process? What can we do to build trust on the way in, other than remembering what our mothers told us about just being ourselves and doing our best? We've looked at a number of situations, where people have done it rather well (and, by unfortunate contrast, not-so-well). From those cases, we have distilled a few key principles that appear to govern the small country of "New-Ness," whether you are New to the company, New to the job, or New to a particular situation.

While they are designed to calm you, some of these topics can be unsettling, simply because they highlight the fears we might have of embarrassment or (worse!) failure. But again, better the devils you know. So let's go down the path with the worst first: What happens if you flub it?

-Rob and Anne-


You might just flub your initial entrance. Yup, you might.

But unless you're only on stage for one brief scene in a one-time only performance, you can probably fix it in the long run. In fact, it might earn you even greater trust — even when your profile is high, the stakes are high, the territory is brutal, and your time is short.

That was exactly the situation that faced one of the highest-profile restaurant openings in the world just a few years ago. This is a story we have come to appreciate for what it says about getting in wrong on the way in, and then getting it right.

When Alain Ducasse arrived in New York to open Alain Ducasse at the Essex House the expectations were high — as high as his prices, which average $250 per person. He was supposed to offer French-food-savvy New Yorkers the most sumptuous, most expensive experience in the city.

But the restaurant got a cool reception. The food was good, but not stellar. The dining room rituals were off-putting. The service was disorganized.

The speculation was that Mr. Ducasse would give up and leave New York.

But no such thing happened. He rolled up his sleeves and fixed what was wrong. He improved the food and its presentation, as well as the functioning of his staff. He even sent the confounding asparagus forceps back to France.

He now offers New Yorkers the experience they expect from someone of his caliber. As food critic William Grimes wrote in the New York Times, "He came, he stumbled and he stayed. And now he has conquered."

Imagine, if you will, what it must have been like for Alain Ducasse in those early months. It couldn't have been pretty. And whether or not your sympathies lie with a restaurateur (or with a restaurant) whose meals can easily exceed $250 per person, you can certainly get a sense of how it must have felt. His entry could not have been what he had hoped (even though, by most reports, things really were pretty darn good in the first place — just not equal to the hype).

You can also sense that Mr. Ducasse must have indeed worked at it with a vengeance, and now appears to have gotten it right. He has, we are told, garnered much respect for his perseverance, and for his ongoing efforts to approach perfection. The fact that he continued to work on improving things, discarding what didn't work in terms of service and presentation, getting his staff to work more cohesively, and investing in getting it right actually enhanced his reputation in his community.

It underscores the fact that on the way in, we are best served by recognizing that building trust is a process, not a single event. As leaders on the way in, we are watched as closely as Alain Ducasse, albeit in entirely different settings.

It's comforting to know that as we get started, there is redemption, and flubs aren't necessarily fatal. Unless one has a series of them.

(For further drooling.. err.. reading, see this New York Times review of Alain Ducasse at the Essex House.)

~ ~ ~

How about you? Do you want to admit that you ever flubbed it on the way in? Or know someone who did? Let us know.

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