Some say trust is a prerequisite for effective collaboration, but New York City-based Carlos Valdes-Dapena, founder of Corporate Collaboration Resources LLC, argues that trust is actually a result of shared meaningful work done in true collaboration.
As he was researching his book Lessons From Mars: How One Global Company Cracked the Code on High Performance Collaboration and Teamwork, he interviewed members of the US Marine Corps on how they effectively collaborate. He was told that strong relationships aren’t formed during team-building exercises that are commonly used in corporate environments, but through training and simulations under combat conditions.
Likewise, over his 20-plus years of experience working with corporate teams, he found that trust was never created by studying one another's personality types or spending a night out bowling with colleagues, but by doing good work and navigating rough patches with empathy.
“Trust in my framing is not a prerequisite for collaboration,” he said. “It's an important element and output of high-quality collaboration, just as mistrust can be an output of lousy collaboration.”
Whether you’re hoping to create trusting collaborative relationships within your team, across functions, or with stakeholders or clients, consider implementing these tips recommended by experts.
Assess current levels of trust. The first step in creating an effective collaborative environment is diagnosing your current relationships so you can understand what is and isn’t working. In some cases, a direct conversation can be the best way to assess current levels of trust, but not always.
“Direct conversations can be uncomfortable and awkward, but they are often a shortcut to get to the heart of what's not working,” Valdes-Dapena said. “You sometimes have to have courageous conversations, and I think it's important we recognise they take a bit of bravery to step into, but they're priceless.”
If you feel you can have a frank conversation with a collaborator, Valdes-Dapena recommended asking them what is and isn’t working for them, getting some suggestions on what could change, implementing those suggestions, and then checking in a few weeks to see whether there has been an improvement.
If you think you might not get an honest response from a collaborator, you can try speaking with management or HR for tips on having courageous conversations. You can also write an email that addresses some of the issues but take care to not blame or inflame; the point is to constructively build trust. And if you want to gauge general levels of trust across your organisation or team, Kerry Wekelo, COO of Actualize Consulting, recommended sending out a short survey and then sharing the results with everyone to increase transparency. Whatever method you choose, Wekelo emphasised that you should work through problems as soon as they arise.
“If things are breaking down, figure out why and try to handle those conflicts and challenges in the moment rather than letting them simmer,” she said.
Navigate rough patches with genuine empathy. Especially when collaborating across functions, the finance department can sometimes be seen as generators of tumult and disruption, if not outright job loss, according to Valdes-Dapena, which is why empathy is vital to effective business partnering.
“It's easy to be a finance person when the profits are rolling in and there's a lot of cash on hand, but you make or break your relationships in those difficult moments,” he said.
During his time at Mars Incorporated, the global, privately held food-processing and animal care company, Valdes-Dapena said the most effective finance professionals were those who took a seat at the table with an understanding that the information they were sharing could be difficult for some and life-altering for many and, as a result, shared that information from a place of empathy rather than indifference.
Lynn Fountain, CPA, CGMA, a risk consultant, trainer, and author, added that finance professionals can start to combat any negative perceptions of the function and exhibit empathy by making sure clients and collaborators understand their perspective and process. For example, when she conducted internal audits, she always started by explaining what the purpose of the audit was, why it was on the audit schedule, and how she was going to perform the audit in order to reassure clients, especially those who weren’t familiar with internal audits.
"Building a relationship involves making sure the other person understands your role and how you go about executing it," she said. "When they know you actually have a framework to follow and a process, they are more trusting of what it is you're going to do."
Be clear about expectations. Effective collaboration cannot happen when the finance department is operating from inside a black box. For that reason, Valdes-Dapena recommends finance professionals be overt about what collaborators can and can’t expect from them, and have a contracting conversation, in which you outline the goal of the collaboration or project you will be working on, clarify what they can expect from you and what you can expect from them, and establish how each of you prefers to work and communicate. Have the conversation upfront to establish a baseline.
He added that a key aspect of effective communication is understanding your audience and being able to sense when someone just needs the broad brush and when someone is ready to go into the weeds. If you’re not sure, simply ask the person how much detail they need and how often they want to hear new information from you.
One of the quickest ways to lose someone’s trust is by sharing misleading or inaccurate information, especially when that information has damaging, real-world impacts. Those who work in financial planning and forecasting can work to preserve trust with clients and collaborators by being as transparent as possible and bringing any assumptions to the fore.
“Often, the assumptions are footnotes at the bottom of a PowerPoint page in 8-point type, but if those footnotes contain anything about the likely accuracy of what you're doing, just make sure you share those upfront,” Valdes-Dapena said. “And that’s not to make excuses; it's to let your partners know that you care enough about them to be completely honest about everything you're doing.”
Consistently following through on your promises is perhaps one of the best ways to establish trust with collaborators, but that’s easier said than done in today's environment where things change daily, according to Fountain.
“If you are unable to follow through with promises you have made, for whatever reason (maybe the resources are no longer available or the circumstances have changed), you need to be timely and upfront with the other person and make sure they understand why your priorities have changed,” Fountain said.
Aim to be a true partner. In high-quality collaborative environments, the finance department should be seen neither as simply “in service” of other functions nor as merely an enforcement function. Each collaborator involved should be considered a true partner with a clear role to play.
Valdes-Dapena pointed out that most organisations rely on manufacturing departments to create their products, marketing departments to make those products or services desirable, and sales teams to persuade stores and customers to buy them. Finance departments should not be considered better or worse than any of these functions, but should aim to strike the right balance.
“Too far to one side and you are the dollars police, too far to the other side and you're a servant,” Valdes-Dapena said. “What you want to be is a partner.”
— Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.