Female business leaders share their strategies for fostering trust

October 12, 2022, 3:25 PM UTC
Photo of Maryam Banikarim, Desiree Gruber, Arielle Patrick, Caryl Stern, and Reshma Saujani.
Panelists discuss building trust at Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit Monday, Oct. 10th, 2022.
Stuart Isett for Fortune

To be a leader you have to earn the trust of those you hope to lead. But how exactly do you build that trust, especially in a world full of uncertainty? A panel of four female business leaders—moderated by Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani—shared some of their ideas and experiences during a roundtable discussion at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in California. 

These women discussed everything from understanding Gen Z, listening, and taking DEI seriously as approaches for employers to foster trust internally. And once trust is developed internally, they said, it’ll prove to be beneficial to the business as a whole. 

“Everyone’s on the precipice of a transformation,” Chief Communications Officer at Ariel Investments, Arielle Patrick said. “So either we’re trying to reestablish trust where it’s been lost, or try to maintain it the best we can where it’s already there.”

Patrick referred to “Trust Barometer,” a survey conducted by global communications firm Edelman, that revealed a huge drop in employee trust among institutions. In the past, a lot of emphasis was placed on shareholders, and their perception of the company they’re investing in. But Patrick says there’s an internal shift to how employee feel. 

“If you don’t have a healthy culture internally, it’s the Achilles heel, it will take you down,” she said. “If you’re not focused on that, if you’re not looking inside before looking outside, you will be very vulnerable.” 

So that means CEOs need to take a look inward before trying to appeal outwardly, Patrick says. 

Meanwhile, Gen Zers are the newest members of the workforce and they’re usually either applauded for their individuality or criticized for their perceived lack of work ethic. Nonetheless employers need them—as employees, customers, or likely both—so they need to know how to appeal to the generation, despite a difference in values and upbringing. 

“We believed in the American dream, we grew up believing this country was going to enable us to succeed if we worked hard,” the Walton Family Foundation’s Executive Director Caryl Stern said. “They believe in the American dream, but they don’t believe the country is going to enable it. They believe they will build it themselves, and it’s a very different level of trust. And they do not trust us. We screwed it up big time. They trust each other. They trust themselves.”

Desiree Gruber, founder and CEO of Full Picture said that she was able to bridge the gap with some of her Gen Z employees by allowing them to work from wherever they want, rather than constantly fighting it—although it was something that frustrated her at first. Instead of letting her frustration fester, Gruber created something called “Creativity Has No Zip Code.” [The program allows employees to work from a new location for 6-8 weeks and pays for their housing as well as some expenses, and asks that employees bring back intel from wherever they are.]

“They love it,” she said. “I just decided to just catapult onto their side and go with it, and it’s been magic.” 

The other panelists, in response, agreed on how important simply listening to your employees can be in earning their trust. 

Patrick said she’s noticed something about Gen Z, in particular: they care about DEI, but can spot when it’s inauthentic. So that means companies have to take it seriously, but Patrick doesn’t necessarily trust some when it comes to doing so. 

“I don’t actually expect much from white men as it relates to trusting these types of initiatives when they are so loosey goosey,” she said—in that, they may not propel these initiatives forward.

Maryam Banikarm, co-founder of NYCNext, widened the scope a bit in terms of trust, extending it to the civic level. She said that at this point it’s civic action that can truly change things—citing the protests after George Floyd’s death as the one thing that created change. 

“It wasn’t philanthropy or corporations,” she said. “The reason there’s no trust is because they feel like we’re not taking the baton. And frankly, they’re taking it from us. And they’re showing us the way.”

So what’s a leader to do? Put data around representation, communicate, listen, and speak out on current issues—and if you don’t have anything to add, point employees to a resource that does. 

This article has been updated with details about the “Creativity Has No Zip Code” program.

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