The Trajectory of Trust: How Integrity and Humanity Build Culture

02/02/2017 10:05 pm ET
Marilyn Carlson Nelson is greeted by children in Asia.
COURTESY OF CARLSON COMPANIES
Marilyn Carlson Nelson is greeted by children in Asia.

by Marcia McMullen

It was an ordinary car ride home from Sunday school until a 13-year-old girl described to her parents with informant like detail stories of the reign of chaos and shenanigans of her classmates. She summoned the courage to say, “I quit”. Her father using the often threatened, yet rarely evoked parent privilege, pulled the car over sharply stating, “You don’t like it? Then change it!” - placing the responsibility right back on her young shoulders.

How Smart Leaders Build Trust, published in “Insights” by Stanford Business School author, Theodore Kinni, highlighted Joel Peterson and David Kaplan’s book, The 10 Laws of Trust. Kinni describes Peterson’s three of ten critical elements of a high trust leader as integrity, competence, and the ability to deliver.

In that early Sunday school chapter Marilyn Carlson Nelson exhibited signs of a trusted leader. When your training ground and first leadership hurdle is moving a group of junior high students from chaos to action and action to change, you quickly hope it will all be downhill from there.

Succeeding her father, Curt Carlson, as CEO of Carlson, a global travel and hospitality company, Nelson would go on to cultivate a broad scope of professional experience, which shaped not only the culture of her family business, but catapult Carlson to become a global model in social responsibility and corporate culture.

Nelson soon took note of a pervasive issue that many companies confronted in the mid 1990s, a lack of women in leadership roles. She created a decisive action plan for women to gain exposure to a variety of business areas and receive the appropriate training that would allow them to move up through the Carlson rank along with their male counterparts.

Often referred to as “the super decade”, Nelson during her tenure moved the dial from a handful of women in leadership roles to more than 45% when she stepped down as CEO in 2008.

A trusted leader is built over time and as Peterson suggests requires “rigor and intentionality”. Nelson with singular focus as CEO, traveled the world to inspire Carlson's workforce about its business strategy and values - always reciting with employees the company's credo.

Whatever you do, do with Integrity

Wherever you go, go as a Leader

Whomever you serve, serve with Caring

Whenever you dream, dream with your All

And never, ever give up.

- Carlson Credo

Nelson's first exposure to the issue of the sexual trafficking of children came during a lunch with a U.S. State Department Ambassador. Several years earlier Ambassador John Miller became aware of Carlson's initiative to partner with Her Majesty Queen Silvia of Sweden to found the global NGO "The World Childhood Foundation." Its mission was to protect vulnerable street children from such threats as trafficking.

Ambassador Miller described to Nelson a heartbreaking reality – that hotels, her very industry, were often an unwitting haven for the sexual exploitation of children. The next step was to dive in and find out what was being done within the industry to stop this shameful behavior. As it turned out not nearly enough.

The Ambassador asked Nelson if she would consider signing an industry Code of Conduct that committed travel companies to training employees on the issue of child sexual exploitation in the industry, what to look for and how to report it.

One can only imagine the conference room the day Nelson brought this request to her executive team. As one might expect, the public relations department was the most vocal – fearing that even if Carlson were trying to combat this issue, the public might mistakenly associate their brand with the problem.

After more robust conversation and further learning about the issue, the Carlson team rallied, assembled all stakeholders and began a decade-long effort to raise awareness, advocate for stricter laws and increase services for victims. Employees were trained world wide and Carlson became the first U.S.-based travel and hospitality company to sign the travel industry's international Code of Conduct to combat the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism.

When leaders stand for moral behavior the culture begins assuming a new rhythm - a pride in seeing their work shift from a job to a force for good. It is no longer only about numbers or assets; it is indeed about human capital --- real people in real circumstances.

With her already rock solid reputation as a leader of integrity and competence, Nelson moved effortlessly across the trusted leader threshold. Her words and actions were intricately aligned.

It is important to look at the arc of examples - occasions when trust is put to the ultimate test and how individuals respond. It will likely be an ordinary day -- a very ordinary day as it was on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Nelson describes those early moments in the Minnesota corporate headquarters as they moved from chaos to control. On a speedily arranged conference call with supervisors around the country, Nelson spoke these words:

“First, anyone that has an employee that is worried about a child or a family member -tell them to go home. Second, anyone willing or able to stay and help us with this problem stay here."

Nelson went on to explain how the day unfolded, "We sent everyone into conference rooms to start thinking about what assets we have, what skills we have that can be part of the solution. That kind of calmed everyone down. Suddenly we were looking at what we might do."

"It quickly became clear that all that had gone before was what made us successful. We had created a culture and a context where values were explicit. We had hired to that value set. We had retained people; we had rewarded and recognized people both for performance and stewardship."

"I told them on that conference call that if we can’t speak to you again soon that we will support your decisions if they are based on the company credo."

"We also said these are the priorities: Take care of your own people. Take care of your customers. Take care of our competitors’ customers and take care of your community. If you do that you will not be second guessed and you will not be criticized for whatever decisions you make.”

What Nelson said is true, “All that had gone before was what made us successful.” The trajectory of trust is indeed a long road with detours of both opportunity and crisis. Integrity, competence and ability to deliver were among the many leadership traits that Nelson brought to build the rich culture of trust that continues today at Carlson.

About the author: Marcia McMullen is a writer, researcher and author. Inspired by outstanding mentors she became fascinated by the reach of key relationships and connecting elements and their influence on the personal narrative and individual legacy.

Her book, Because You Believed in Me: Mentors and Protégés Who Shaped Our World highlights mentoring relationships from history. Her second volume, Because You Believed in Me: Contemporary Mentoring Stories, focuses on relationships of today was released in 2015. Connect with her on her website or on Twitter.

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