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November 14, 2017

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Andrew Bergen

What’s Trust Got to Do With It?

Not too many minutes ago, the plane I am sitting on took off and is taking me home.  I’m anxious to return. I’ve been on the road for a while and look forward to home and connecting with those I love.

It’s the beginning of the winter weather where I am, so I know that means prior to departure, the plane’s wings must be de-iced. This always means a bit of a delay in departure – and an arrival that’s a few minutes later than I’d like. As we were waiting for the de-icing truck to spray our wings (which seemed to take longer than usual), I heard one passenger mutter to his partner, “Why do we have to wait for this? Let’s just go. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t put an inept pilot on this plane.” He was willing to trust the pilot’s skills to navigate a potentially dangerous situation once the plane was ascending.

In this situation, I believe most of us would agree it’s not about trusting the pilot’s skills. Whether or not we trust the pilot has nothing to do with the potentially catastrophic situation that might occur should ice build up on the wings during take-off and ascent.  Regardless of the pilot’s skill, leaving the airport without de-icing creates a risk that the airlines – and especially the passengers – should be unwilling to accept.

I’ve heard boards say very similar things related to trusting their CEO.  I’ve also heard the CEO asking the board to “just trust me.”  This can be a tempting trap in which to become ensnared. Part of the board’s fiduciary duty is to define situations or conditions that would be unacceptable even if they worked – even if the CEO is capable of navigating them. A board must be concerned with defining these unacceptable situations regardless of the person who is at the operational helm. Trust has nothing to do with it.

Demonstrating to its owners that the board is holding the organization accountable includes defining unacceptable situations that must not be allowed – and then monitoring to ensure these situations are not occurring. In this light, good governance is trust neutral. Don’t give in to the temptation to abandon rigor for the sake of trust. As I’m winging my way home, I’m sure glad the airline didn’t.

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