Leadership: It Starts and Ends With Trust

May 13, 2016 – “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself,” said Jack Welch, the legendary former CEO of GE. “When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” Mr. Welch’s sentiment on leadership resonates as much today as it did when he first made that comment more than a decade ago. But identifying, assessing, recruiting, retaining and coaching leaders, says Keith Mullin, CEO of Mullin International, is likely more difficult now than it was then.

Keith leads Mullin’s efforts in the redeployment, outplacement and coaching of senior leaders – something the firm has done effectively since 1980. Leading a team of 1,400 consultants and an expansive staff across 145 worldwide offices, he knows more than most a thing or two about leading people – from what drives them, to what motivates them, to what most matters to them.

In the following interview, Keith discusses the essential traits a leader must have to rise to the top. He looks at what the unique leadership skills are from person to person and how trust underpins every successful leader’s thinking. Keith also advances some fresh perspective on how effective leaders balance technology and people. In the end, he offers this: successful leaders afford dignity to everyone around them, and that is how the next generation of great leaders is built.


What led you to Mullin International and why did you choose this sector to build and develop the firm around?

Upon graduation, I was lucky enough to be hired into a management training program for a prestigious financial services firm. What was so great was our class was rotated through every facet of the company – front office to back. We sat on trading desks; we all worked in the ‘vault’ and came in on occasional weekends to count certificates; and we met with clients and sat in on important meetings. First-hand we were taught about how the company works, how clients were serviced and we were given extensive exposure to leadership. Essentially, we got to know and understand the direction of the company (as much as any newly-minted graduate could). That complete training in all matters technical and subjective has guided me throughout my career and how we run our business today. The positive impact this program afforded me and the lessons learned have contributed to how we approach and engage our clients.

In your capacity as a top human capital professional, you see leadership on a daily basis. What key traits do the most successful leaders possess?

Leadership is unique to each individual. The best leaders understand themselves first and they have an appreciation of how they are perceived and how they impact others. They are confident, not arrogant. They listen with intent and hear what is not being said. They ask questions and communicate frequently. Decisions are made and follow through is consistent. They provide an environment in which open dialogue is respected, not tolerated. They treat people fairly and with respect. The skill required to lead teams that are constantly in transition is built on trust. And that trust is earned daily and through repeated actions. Finally, great leaders own their mistakes and they move on.

So much of our business world is reliant on technology and digital expertise. How do leaders today blend the advances in technology with the key interpersonal skills required to lead and direct people in their workforces?

Today’s leaders appreciate technology’s unyielding ability to positively impact performance in collaboration with a team who clearly understands the goals of the business and how to leverage technology. They view advances as ‘technology & teams’ and they see that as mutually beneficial, not exclusive. Effective leaders view technology for what it is and that it’s a vehicle to drive a company, but not to be dominated by it. There is a real balance between viewing technology as a critical instrument in the day-to-day growth, development and ongoing operations of a company. But good leaders will know and understand that you cannot over rely on technology; it is there to buttress a leader’s most critical asset which is people. Understanding how to balance the human elements with the technological elements, especially in the times we live where technology has become so dominant, is really hard to do but a skilled leader will figure it out.

Part of what you do is coach and train top professionals. Are leading companies handling this effectively or are they falling short? And does substantive training help create better leaders?

Yes, many leading companies are handling this exceptionally well. When we speak with clients, they are telling us the more they engage in providing targeted coaching and training they see a sustainable improvement in performance. It is positive and rewarding. It is long past the ‘broken wing’ philosophy and all about how leaders and companies collaborate to allow any professional to be the most effective leader in an organization.

How do you best measure leaders and how do you know when they are running on all cylinders?

Trust. When a leader is running on all cylinders, as you say, they have the trust of the organization, the teams they work with and the group they are responsible for. If motives are constantly under scrutiny then confidence is undermined and this negatively impacts performance. In our outplacement business, the best companies treat exiting employees well and as professional as when they hired them in. It sends a message of trust and affords dignity, and it helps to minimize any negative impact associated with a departing employee. In the end, the organization is building trust with the very people they thought enough of to hire in the first place and that sends a very powerful message to employees and potential new recruits. Great leadership always starts and ends with trust.

Contributed by Christopher W. Hunt, Publisher, Hunt Scanlon Media and Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media

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