Deloitte’s Ashley Reichheld: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain…

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Deloitte’s Ashley Reichheld: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times

One of the most important things a leader can do during turbulent times is establish transparency. Transparency makes you vulnerable, and that’s a good thing because it helps you to earn people’s trust. When a brand or organization exposes itself by sharing information that is often withheld in an industry, it signals that it trusts its customers to make a fair comparison with competitors. Customers appreciate this trusting vulnerability and reward it with greater trust in the brand.

As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Reichheld.

Ashley Reichheld is a Principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP and the lead author of the Wall Street Journal best-selling book, The Four Factors of Trust. She is also the creator of the HX TrustID™ measurement platform. Ashley has spent over 20 years helping her clients reimagine brands and experiences, forging deeper connections, and shaping the moments that matter for customers, workforce, and partners. She is deeply passionate about building trust, enabling businesses to create value and stronger connections with people and markets. Ashley has lived, worked, or visited nearly every continent and over forty countries, building a strong sense of global citizenship.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I grew up just south of Cleveland, Ohio in a small town called Medina, where I lived on a Christmas tree farm. During our less busy days, the farm worked on an honor system, so people would come and take their tree and leave money through the trailer door. We didn’t have the means to staff the farm all of the time, so we kind of had to trust customers to do that. You extend trust to get trust and when I ran my own mini farm down the street, every single person left money- not a single tree was stolen. So trust has been important for as long as I can remember.

After Ohio, I was fortunate to spend much of my professional career abroad, visiting or working in over 40 countries. This journey gave me a sense of global citizenship and an understanding of how culture might influence trust. For example, during my first few weeks living in Australia, I was baffled by some of the signs in women’s bathrooms, which were pictures advising people not to stand on a toilet

seat. Why did Australians feel the need to point this out? As it turns out, China is one of the largest sources of permanent immigrants in Australia. In China, sharing a toilet seat with a stranger is considered unsanitary, and many of the public toilets are squatting toilets (actually holes in the ground where you squat over the hole), which are considered more sanitary. While this probably won’t make it into our trust measurement platform, it does illustrate how cultural values shift norms, which need to be accounted for in measuring trust.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I spent a little time working in Japan — an amazing place where ancient shrines and brand-new skyscrapers sit side by side. It took me awhile to realize that the head nods in meetings didn’t actually mean agreement. Like most well run meetings, we would have an agenda and a set of decisions to make, and we’d aim for consensus with the group. What I didn’t understand is that disagreeing in public can be considered quite rude, so disagreement instead took the form of a small cough or what wasn’t said. As a result, we would ‘agree’ on next steps, and I would be off and running…without realizing that there wasn’t actually agreement at all.

I’d like to say I figured it out right away, but truthfully it took several weeks, and I think caused some friction with my Eastern clients, who started to see me as the fast-moving Westerner who was more interesting in checking off the ‘to do’ list than building relationships. I eventually learned how to ‘read the air,’ or kuuki wo yomu). I also learned how important it is to have in-person one-on-one meetings to cultivate individual relationships (nemawashi). And of course, most importantly I learned the importance of being flexible and able to adapt to different cultures and styles of working.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

What I’ve learned from working with clients, and my own team, is that trust should be a top priority during uncertain or difficult times. A solid foundation of trust is shown to increase loyalty and performance across the board — and is critical to keeping operations smooth in light of turbulence.

Trust is built by making good promises and then keeping them. This ultimately comes down to just four factors — humanity, and transparency, which are part of making a ‘good promise,’ and capability, and reliability, which allow organizations to ‘keep’ their promise.

  1. Humanity means an individual or an organization demonstrates empathy and kindness toward their customers, workers and other stakeholders, treating everyone fairly.
  2. Capability means an individual or an organization delivers quality products, experiences, and services.
  3. Transparency means an individual or an organization openly shares information, motives, and choices in plain language. We trust someone at work to be straightforward and honest.
  4. Reliability means an individual or an organization consistently and dependably delivers upon promises made, time after time.

Years ago, when I was vying for a big promotion, I sat down with one of my most inspiring clients to get her advice and feedback. She said many lovely things (all of which I’ve forgotten), but there’s one point of constructive feedback that I will always remember, ‘Ashley, to be an inspiring leader you need to make yourself vulnerable.’ At the time, I was the only woman on the leadership team and keeping a schedule that was close to unbearable. I didn’t feel ‘safe’ being vulnerable and frankly, I’m not sure I really understood her advice.

Now that I look back, I have a better idea of what she was saying — to be the best leader, I had to be my authentic self and be transparent with people and open to them, even though that can be risky.

The pandemic put this to the test. With all the uncertainty and misinformation swirling around, people were anxious. Probably the most valuable thing I did during that period was to reach out to my teams, individually and in groups, to listen to their concerns, address (transparently!) what I knew and what I didn’t, and share my own optimism about the future, but also my concerns. Trust is built in moments of vulnerability and, as a leader, it was important to set the tone that it was ok to share worries and that, equally, I could be counted on. That open and honest communication was massively important.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

You have to earn employees’ trust, which in turn will help to earn the trust of customers and partners This is even more true in challenging times, when uncertainty can heighten people’s anxiety and even create suspicion about leadership’s plans or motivations. People who trust their employers are 50% less likely to look for other jobs and in turn deliver about a 200% improvement in customer satisfaction. And when organizations achieve a high trust score from customers, we see total market value improvements of up to 400%! Most leaders know intuitively that trust is critical. But now we can quantify exactly how important it is.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate, and engage their team?

It’s pretty clear that trust drives the kind of engagement and motivation we want from our employees. For example, when employees trust their employer, they are 260% more motivated to work and we see 50% less absenteeism.

So how can leaders earn trust? Make trust part of your own leadership philosophy and how you show up every day, focusing on the Four Factors of Trust: Humanity, Capability, Transparency, and Reliability.

Let me read you my own leadership philosophy:

  • Be Human: I strive to cultivate an inclusive practice. I strive to demonstrate empathy, kindness, and vulnerability. I will value and respect people as individuals regardless of background, identity, or beliefs.
  • Be Transparent: I aim to be like the Dutch. Transparency is so intrinsic to Dutch culture that there is a word for it — bespreekbaarheid — which roughly means that everything can and should be talked about.
  • Be Capable: I endeavor to create long-term solutions and improvements that work through collaboration and innovation. Progress happens when we are courageous, skillful, and look to change things for the better.
  • Be Reliable: I will take ownership and action to deliver consistently and dependably on the promises I make.

For example, for me, demonstrating humanity often means intentionally slowing down (I tend to operate at the pace of a small hurricane!) and taking the time to acknowledge what is understood and what still needs explaining, what is agreed and what needs to be discussed, and to give time to react and engage. It also means starting calls with asking how everyone’s (?) doing and celebrating small milestones and exciting achievements. I care deeply about the people I work with- and I really try to take the time to show it.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

You can lose trust faster than you can gain it, which is why it’s important to be honest and transparent. That means providing information as clearly as possible and being willing to speak face-to-face. Otherwise, you might look like you’re withholding information, which creates uncertainty and is sure to lose people’s trust. And, critically, leaders need to do this with a dose of humanity. Acknowledge why it might be difficult — maybe the task is unpleasant or maybe you have to give bad news, give teams time to react, listen and respond with empathy. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to acknowledge how someone feels. This doesn’t mean you have to agree. It does mean you should try and imagine yourself in that position and try to treat the person like you’d want to be treated.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

No company can succeed by being all things to all people, and the best companies make explicit decisions around where they want to play (and specifically where not to play), and then integrate more choices regarding how to win and what capabilities are required.

In short, a strategy is an integrated set of choices — both what you will do and what you will not do — which position an organization to create sustainable competitive advantage

In times of uncertainty, it can be tempting to say ‘let’s wait and see’ before making any strategic choices, thinking that the right choice will become clearer over time. But the choice to wait is still a choice- it just means you’re setting your strategy one small decision at a time, whether implicitly or explicitly.

But once you set your strategy, it doesn’t mean that you’re done. Successful organizations will evolve their strategy, anticipating when possible and otherwise responding to market and industry shifts. Uncertainty isn’t a license to stop making plans. If anything, it underscores the importance of having a strategy (a set of choices), that can guide decisions in tough times.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

Companies need to continually work to deliver on the four factors of trust — humanity, capability, transparency, and reliability — to get through difficult times. But our research shows that demonstrating humanity can play an outsized role in winning over employees, customers and other stakeholders when you need them most.

Showing humanity means that you are demonstrating empathy and kindness and treating everyone fairly. Our research shows that when customers feel that a brand is high in humanity, they are nearly three times more likely to stick with it through a mistake. And when employees feel their organization is high in humanity, they are one-and-a-half times more likely to defend their employer after someone’s criticism. Expressing humanity whether as individual leader or whole company is crucial in turbulent times.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

Maintaining trust is essential when times are tough. And one of the most common mistakes I see leaders make is failing to express their own vulnerability. Showing vulnerability is essential in building trust because it conveys a degree of raw authenticity that can’t be faked. Oftentimes, leaders make the mistake of thinking that in order to generate confidence, they also need to be right 100% of the time. But we are all human, and the commonality is that we all make mistakes. Acknowledging what you got right, what you got wrong, and what you’ve learned as a result is a crucial element of demonstrating humanity and earning trust

Beyond that, I’ve also seen leaders lose sight of the purpose of the organization during turbulent times. Having purpose is foundational to any organization and its stakeholders. Purpose defines why the organization exists and the role it plays in society. Without purpose, it’s easy for an organization to lose its identity, and easy for employees to lose trust in the organization. Leaders need to make themselves accountable for maintaining the purpose of an organization, which might mean navigating conflicting demands and making decisions that can be seen as ideal by some stakeholder groups and wrong by others. But the best leaders not only make these choices, they share their logic and motivations alongside the choice they made.

The third mistake I see leaders make is failing to set clear goals around trust. How do they want to maintain and build trust with their stakeholders — whether employees, customers, or others? How will they measure their progress toward the goals and communicate about it? Having clear trust goals and then measuring and reporting on their progress helps leaders hold themselves accountable. And that transparency and accountability is critical to better decision-making, improving the company’s performance and ensuring trust.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

One of the most important things a leader can do during turbulent times is establish transparency. Transparency makes you vulnerable, and that’s a good thing because it helps you to earn people’s trust. When a brand or organization exposes itself by sharing information that is often withheld in an industry, it signals that it trusts its customers to make a fair comparison with competitors. Customers appreciate this trusting vulnerability and reward it with greater trust in the brand.

For example, after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Marriott International President and CEO Arne Sorensen sent a video message to all the company’s associates clearly laying out the reality facing the company. Hotel occupancy was down by over 75%, but before announcing any furloughs or pay cuts, Sorenson announced he would not take a salary in 2020, and the executive team would take a 50 percent cut in pay. And in an extraordinary sign of personal vulnerability, Sorenson admitted his team was anxious about him appearing “in my new, bald look.” He was undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer as the crisis began (Sorenson died at age sixty-two less than a year later). It takes strong, empathetic leadership to give tough messages in plain language.

In addition, leaders need to show their humanity. At the start of the pandemic, Delta Air Lines saw 95 percent of its revenue disappear virtually overnight as travel demand plummeted. As an essential service, Delta had to keep flying, even with planes mostly empty, which meant that costs were still high while revenue was low. Delta responded to the crisis with a series of company-wide moves that demonstrated humanity and transparency, sustaining trust among both their workforce and customers. First, Delta CEO Ed Bastian made a commitment not to fire or furlough a single employee. Instead, he made leave optional for employees, who could choose to continue working or to take voluntary unpaid leave with full benefits. This put the decision in the hands of the employees, giving them agency, a direct signal that their priorities were also Delta’s priorities. More than 40,000 of Delta’s 75,000-person workforce went on voluntary leave — saving over 50 percent in costs without having to involuntarily furlough or lay off any employees.

Another example from Delta shows why it’s important to clearly set expectations during a crisis. During the pandemic, Delta blocked middle seats for customers and clearly let them know what was expected when traveling again. At first, blocking middle seats was easy because Delta didn’t have many people traveling. But as people started to come back to travel, Delta kept that commitment until people felt confident in the return to travel. Or in other words, until they knew what to expect, and that Delta would deliver capably and reliably to keep them safe.

Leaders should also collaborate with their partners to help build trust with them and their employees and customers during trying times. Building trust with partners is just as important as it is with own workforce and customers. Small businesses, for example, took a big hit in the 2020 recession following the pandemic. One Deloitte client in the financial services industry had a history of supporting small businesses during times of need. Recognizing that approximately 60 percent of small businesses are owned by women and people of color, the company helped create a coalition in partnership with 100 larger companies to help small businesses get the tools they needed in the moment, including advice on how to manage remote employees, access to digital marketing tools, and support on how to manage cash flow.

Lastly, leaders should have mechanisms in place to report on trust. Another one of Deloitte’s clients, a longstanding media organization, has a strong reputation as a trusted institution. But an increasingly competitive digital news ecosystem meant that they had to come to a better understanding of their subscribers’ attitudes toward the outlet in order to protect retention. We worked with the client to issue a four-question survey to approximately 16,000 current, former, and prospective customers to measure trust levels across the Four Factors of Trust. We then combined the survey results with data on how customer actually behaved to conduct an analysis. From there, we used the results to run pilot campaigns designed to increase customer trust and loyalty.

How can our readers further follow your work?

I hope you’ll check out our book, The Four Factors of Trust, which I’m delighted to say spent four weeks on the Wall Street Journal business best seller list. We have made our work open source, and you can find our worker and customer surveys as well as a link to an interactive tool where you can see trust scores at the category level and even quantify the impact of those scores on behavior and company performance on And of course, I hope you’ll follow me on LinkedIn:

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Deloitte’s Ashley Reichheld: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.