It has been more than two months since I have had the opportunity to be in the same room with my staff and colleagues at the University of Tampa (UT). In early March, we all left the UT campus for what we thought would be 7 days of spring break. Like faculty and students around the country and the world, a few days before our anticipated return to campus, our routines were drastically changed and we were told to stay home in an effort to keep us all safe as a novel virus began to spread through our communities. Since that time, while we have not been physically together on our campus, we have spent countless hours with each other on our computer screens. This week, with the semester over, I am reflecting on just how productive we have all been. Our small team was perhaps even more innovative and collaborative than I have ever known us to be. The result has been truly remarkable and as I consider this I wonder how we were able to get so much done without the day to day personal interaction to which we were accustomed.
Certainly, technology has been a big factor in our ability to carry on. In a recent Enfactor Podcast with Jason Feifer, we discussed the role of the massive change required during this pandemic and the more widespread use of technologies that were available but not yet widely embraced. I, like many others, were expecting massive challenges when we first moved all classes online, and while there were a few glitches, the transition from traditional education to online felt mostly seamless. Of course, I don’t want to discount the significant work by a lot of people to ensure a smooth conversion, but classes were taught, remote conferences were held, seminars and office meetings were scheduled and conducted and we even held an online competition for our students.
As I talked about this with my daughter, who was also marveling at how much work was getting done with a fully remote workforce at her company, I commented to her that even with the best technology, trust is a pre-requisite to ensuring that virtual work is effective and efficient. Remote work feels less transparent so we need to trust that what we see on the computer screen is the full story. I have had employees in the past whom I did not trust. Today, I don’t have that problem and I am convinced that it was more than technology that allowed our team to conduct our work so effectively this past semester. We trusted each other.
Trust is crucial in life and business. Absent trust, we must rely on rules, regulations and sanctions. Transactions become totally dependent upon the rule of law and its enforceability. Conversely, in regions of the world where the rule of law and a system of justice to enforce it are not available, trust is the only way business transactions can occur. (For more on this consider reading, The Mystery of Capital, by Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto Polar).
My own research has pointed to the importance of trust in entrepreneurship. Some years ago, Professor Kenneth Rhee and I surveyed entrepreneurs who were members of the YEO (Young Entrepreneurs Organization, now EO, which is a peer to peer group of business founders) in an effort to better understand the emotional competencies of entrepreneurs. Our study was based on the emotional intelligence work pioneered by Daniel Goldman. Emotional intelligence helps us to recognize our own feelings and those of others, to motivate ourselves, and to manage our emotions. Our findings were quite interesting. We found that trustworthiness, defined as the ability to maintain standards of honesty and integrity, was ranked highest among the 18 emotional competencies measured. And, closely related and dependent upon trust, the importance of teamwork and collaboration in the new venture process was also highly emphasized by the study participants.
One of the entrepreneurs that I have had the opportunity to know and learn from, shared an elegant way of describing the primacy of trust. Roger Griggs, a serial entrepreneur who began his career as a high school football coach and social studies teacher, started several companies in the pharmaceutical space including Richwood Pharmaceuticals which merged with Shire in 1997. He and his team of experts were responsible for introducing several remarkably innovative products such as Adderall® (ADHD), Accuhist® (cough and cold), Amicar® (bleeding disorders), and many others. To make these significant contributions, Roger had to get a wide variety of people to work with him and his team and to invest in his vision throughout his entrepreneurial journey. When I asked him about his accomplishments, Roger told me that the key to success in business is “making and keeping commitments.” I think of his words often and they remind me that, not only in business but also in life, my word is my reputation. People want to associate with people they can trust.
Like Roger, a key skill any entrepreneur must develop is the ability to leverage resources. In fact, I believe one can often differentiate between a manager mindset and an entrepreneurial mindset when a discussion turns to resources. Managers think in terms of how to divide the resources already available to reach a goal and they often eliminate a goal if resources are not available. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, focus on where to find the resources needed to accomplish goals that they believe are worth pursuing – regardless of the resources currently available. Entrepreneurs do not let a lack of resources stop them from pursuing a worthy goal. Successful entrepreneurs become masters of gathering resources. And, as it turns out, this skill is heavily dependent upon trust.
I have always valued the opportunity to build relationships and trust in the workplace and at conferences and meetings and through other shared experiences with peers. Being present with others has afforded me the opportunity to not only listen to what is being said, but to also observe body language and have the benefit of applying all of my senses to the occasion, including my gut instincts. However, I think we all are beginning to realize that we will see an even greater use of technology and remote/virtual communication in the new normal. We know that we can transact business without the massive travel budgets that we once thought were necessary. Business owners and leaders are finding that they may not need to invest in large campuses and real estate complexes. And, employees are finding that they prefer to work from home and that they can be even more productive because they have gained an extra 90 minutes in their day that was once consumed by their commute. Entrepreneurs, like everyone else, will adapt.
I believe this increased use of remote work will underscore the already important need for trust. The question then becomes how do we build relationships and trust as we increasingly rely on technology? Will we be reduced to working only with those people we already trust? Will we turn to more rules, regulations and sanctions to ensure fair transactions? Or, will we find new ways to build meaningful relationships and trust remotely? I think the answers to these questions will define how we transact business in the years to come.