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Trust is the most powerful currency in business

July 28, 2015, 1:54 PM UTC
businessman and businesswoman shaking hands
Photograph by Getty Images

A number of years ago, after significant business development time and expense, my firm, Gensler, was hired by a major bank to design the interiors of its corporate headquarters. Our office radiated excitement the day we heard we had won the business. We all recognized that it was an amazing opportunity for the business, as the bank’s CEO had indicated that he wanted nothing but the best in design.

We quickly kicked off the planning phase of the project, assembled a team, and scheduled a series of meetings with the client to present our proposed process and nail down his company’s objectives and a strategic direction for going forward.

The CEO called me to attend the first of what we envisioned to be many productive and lively meetings. Unfortunately, all our hopes and eagerness were quickly dashed at that first session, and it became clear to me that, despite the prestige and financial benefit the project would provide the firm, Gensler could not agree to work on the assignment.

As it turned out, the CEO wished to talk with me about a plan he had devised to use the project to benefit himself personally. He wanted to run all the furniture he was ordering for his new family home through our books so the purchases would appear to be part of the headquarters project. In that way, the bank would bear the cost of his personal remodel project.

Without hesitating, I shook the CEO’s hand and let him know that my firm would not be able to work on the project.

Though the whole team was disappointed to forfeit what would have been an exciting and profitable assignment, we walked away from the opportunity knowing that we had done the right thing. The CEO’s dishonesty negated any possibility of a collaboration because after hearing his intentions I knew that he could not be a business partner—because he could not be trusted. And, not so incidentally, I’m still here; that former CEO is in prison.

In my new book, Art’s Principles, I outline lessons I have learned over the last 50 years starting and growing my own business. Over the years I have worked on hundreds of projects and encountered thousands of people working in dozens of business sectors. The most powerful currency that cuts through all of my experience is the value of trust in building relationships. Once lost, it is really impossible to regain.

Trust and ethical behavior go hand in hand. Ethics comprise the foundation of your character and cannot be compromised without major consequences. There are no shortcuts when it comes to being ethical: Either you do the right thing or you don’t.

I always remember what Jack Welch once said: “Cut the crap in approaching ethics.” Instead of writing down lots of rules and debating the fine points of legalese, he uses one simple question to address the conscience of each individual he employs: “Can you look in the mirror in the morning and be proud of what you’re doing?” If we ask our people to do that, we’ll be fine. Throughout my career I have tried to use this rule of thumb when making decisions, and I have tried to promote the same kind of ethical decision-making in all Gensler employees.

Leaders have a responsibility to educate their teams about a firm’s ethical code, to discuss and document institutional values, and to provide examples of honorable reactions to difficult situations. In this way, every person who is a part of the organization understands its business ethics and values. In fact, research has shown that when business leaders demonstrate a commitment to practicing ethical business, they not only inspire employees to think more positively about their organization, but they can also instill a sense of trust and confidence in leadership and fellow employees.

Ethical behavior sends a message to employees, clients, and members of your community that you care about more than profit alone—and that you deserve their trust. The first step in forging long-term business relationships is developing that mutual bond. If you make a commitment, you must deliver on that promise. If you say you will act according to certain standards, you must keep your word. Then people know they can trust you.

Trust in business enjoys two main benefits. The first is with your clients. If they know you are honest and direct with them, they usually are willing to work through challenges with you, and they won’t hesitate to be a referral source when things go well. The second benefit is that authentic collaboration will take root within your firm. Your people can trust each other to act honorably and to fulfill their defined roles on a project assignment or company initiative according to shared company values. The earned trust of clients and employees serves as the basis of a strong business, and it has served our firm well for five decades.

Stick to your standards and encourage the same from those with whom you work. Lead by example, and you will have a positive impact on your people and your clients. As we are, our work will be. And it is by our work that we are known to our clients and to the business community.

Arthur Gensler, FAIA, is an architect and founder of Gensler, a leading global design firm. When he started his company, he knew a lot about architecture but very little about running a business. In 2015, he wrote Art’s Principles to offer today’s entrepreneurs the business insights he wishes someone had given him when he was first starting out.