Earn Trust and Have Backbone

The things I learned from leading TU20

In Dec 2018 I realized that we needed to have a stronger succession plan for TU20. From that emerged the TU20 leadership series, a 12 week set of readings and exercises that helped to prepare the next group of TU20 leaders. This is chapter 5, originally written in Feb of 2019.

What is Trust?

Trust is something hard to define and it changes for every person. Let’s start with a scenario.

You spill coffee on your parent’s second favourite carpet and hide it. Your sibling tells your parents, did your sibling break your trust?

You ask a friend to refer you to a job and your friend realizes you are not qualified and doesn’t give you a positive recommendation. Has your friend broken your trust?

I think the easiest way to define trust is by maintaining interpersonal standards between people. Trust is not static, nor is your perception of trust; your trust of your friend who didn’t recommend you might be restored after thinking more about the situation.

The second definition of trust I would offer is doing what you say you will do. If you say you will complete a task and you do, trust is built. If you fail, trust goes down. If you say your motivations were one thing, but they were different, you get trust issues.

The third definition, or in this case, component of trust is a sense of mutual benefit and mutually assured destruction. We trust people who have common goals and also who know a fair amount about ourselves. We build relationships by opening up to others, and this creates a reciprocating environment. We probably know enough good and bad things about our friends to have them labelled as saints or scandals, but we choose to not reveal this information because we are trusted, and we have our own faults.

How do you build trust?

Building trust is difficult and it’s a continuous process. I think it comes down to three things:

1) Competence — can you do your tasks well, can you mentor others regarding these tasks, do your communication and thoughts make sense. If you help your team, do they learn something new? If I listen to you blindly and you say this wall breaks if you run fast enough, do you trust my judgement to run through the wall? While a little silly, the example holds: your team and peers need to have confidence that you know what you’re doing.

2) Character — do people trust your judgement because you have peoples’ best interests in mind? Is there a strong sense of respect. Do people feel that you are there to back them up, offer constructive criticism and shield them when required. At the end of the day people don’t need to like you, but you need to be an position where you have earned their respect.

3) Relatability — This one is less logical and more emotional. When you are part of a team, it needs to feel like a team. People need to feel they are working on something meaningful, are working with people they can open up to and absorb some of your thoughts.

Trust, but Verify

An important principle that many leaders follow is to trust their peers, bosses and teams. You recruited them, trained them and delegated responsibility for a reason. But, you should always have some sort of ways to sign off on their work. Likewise, when you are told some information, you should be able to independently verify it. Why? Because people make mistakes, misread, mishear, misunderstand. Other times they may be malicious.

So how do you verify? A simple online search, asking someone else, intuition, logic ect. You may also just look over their reasoning and work and see if it meets expectations.


A great way to verify is through a system of steps that people have to do. This limits the random number of mistakes and has people adhere to a pre agreed upon standard. This is a kinder term for bureaucracy, but everything needs to become bureaucratic after a certain point.

Systems exist beyond just trust; they help standardize quality, provide a learning opportunity and minimize confusion. They can also, almost ironically, provide inspiration of a new/vs old contrast.

Sampling and Stochasticity

When we do studies and science, there is no way to check every possibility, every person or control every variable. So instead we check enough things with enough randomness and use statistical methods to make conclusions.

So what does stats have to with being a leader? If you check everything your team does, you are micromanaging. But if you don’t check enough, you are not doing your job. So you need to find a way to check in and have processes in place to have confidence things are being done right, and when they are not, to identify and help fix them.

Every week we do weekly updates. Do I have time to read all of them and cross check them? No. Do I have time to check 2 or 3 and cross reference? Yes. And with enough iterations I can identify most of the problems happening.

What is a backbone?

Many of you may have heard the insult “They have no backbone”, but what does that mean? The common interpretation is that someone’s decision making or actions gave out under the smallest pressure, whether financial, emotional, egotistical or physical. This ties partially to our discussion on ethics and the need to stand up for what you think is morally right, but also to emotional and intellectual resilience, being able to stand up for your ideas and actions.

We all have ideas and reasons, some are better than others. This is a fact of life you have to accept early and remember. The question is, who decides what is a good idea and what is not? Usually it’s by the loudest and most powerful, or if you like acronyms you get the HPPO effect (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) (Pronounced Hippo). People like power and feeling good about themselves, so why induce change, why have differing opinions, why create instability when you can just shut down any opposition? Why have your fragile ego be weakened by some small commoner who does not have the prestige or pedigree as you do?

I’m being silly, but the point still stands. The people whose ideas are implemented are usually the loudest, most powerful people who find ways to build allies to support their ideas. It’s not meritocratic, it’s usually not the best, and it certainly is frustrating if you are not part of the in-group. So how do you fix this?

Step 1: Redefining confidence.

Confidence is a little bit of silly word and as a rational concept silly. Because someone says something in some way, with a certain posture and with a certain phrasing, does that make their ideas better? No it doesn’t, but it makes us more likely to believe them. I’m not discounting the value of being able to walk into a room with great posture, a solid handshake and a well spoken presentation, but when listening and discussing ideas, try to look past the pizzazz.

When speaking, you need to feel confident in sharing your ideas. As mentioned before, this depends on the environment, but is also internal to yourself. Have you done research? Have you spoken with people in this field? Have you used your intuition? Have you thought about the drawbacks? It’s a trade off between preparation and progress, but if you can looks someone in the eye and say:

“I had this idea, I think it will solve this problem for these reasons. There are certain limitations, but I think the best way to understand the merits and limitations of this idea is to test it in this way”

Boom. How can someone disagree with you? You gave some strong reasons, in a concise manner, you acknowledged some limitations and gave an actionable next step. Your approach will need to change depending on your audience, but it is a general framework that is helpful. Many people suffer from imposter syndrome, but by building a case (even to convince yourself) and knowing that this is what you believe, it makes things easier.

Step 2 : Prepare and Be ready to defend your idea

Defending your ideas should not be like defending your cubs as a momma bear. It should be sharing why you think it will work, describing key assumptions and communicating next steps. While it’s true some people are there to attack you during question periods, many are just curious on further exploring your ideas and incorporating their own. In both cases, being calm and well prepared will help.

Step 3: Criticizing others ideas/alternatives

Life is not all about defense, when you see things that don’t work, you need to fix them, and sometimes this means stopping a silly rebellion. If someone brings up an idea you don’t agree with, you need to be able to explain why, without offending a reasonable person. You shouldn’t care if the other person get’s offended, but you should care if a reasonable person would have been offended.

People get defensive, so you need build common ground, let’s go through a scenario:

Person A: We should give every new TU20 member $100 to make them feel special.

Person B: That’s Dumb

Person A: You’re Dumb.

Well, that didn’t work, let’s try again.

Person A: We should give every new TU20 member $100 to make them feel special.

Person B: What are you trying to accomplish?

Person A: We need to make people feel like they belong and to incentivize them to join.

Person B: I agree, but If someone gave you $100 to be friends with them, would you stick around?

Person A: Umm, probably not.

Person B: So I think it would be a similar experience. We are trying to build a long term community, so we need to focus on retention rather than acquisition. Out of our 400 members, maybe 20 have been to more than 1 event, and maybe 10 have stuck around for over a year (not including execs). So I think it would be better focusing on retention.

Person A: But acquisition is really important.

Person B: It is for sure, let’s keep thinking on how to attract new members without essentially bribing them. Let’s put our heads together to try to solve this problem.

This was a healthier and more constructive discussion.

So what is having backbone?

Stand up for what you think is right, defend your choices and reasons, be civil.

Why is having a backbone important?

  1. Better ideas will be implemented.
  2. You will have better discussions.
  3. You will be more respected.
  4. You will learn more.
  5. You will have a sense of self and not buckle to pressure as easily.

Having a backbone is not the same as being stubborn

You have an impasse, now what?

A common quote in the startup world is to stop arguing in the boardroom, because all the answers are with the customer. So the idea is what we’ve been discussing for a while; both of you might have valid ideas, go test them in small context, see what assumptions are likely to be true, what worked and what didn’t and go from there.

The question is, how do you do this gracefully, without undermining the core platform?

Surveys, Interviews, Small Events are usually good. Your ideas should be small enough to be testable at the end of the day.

Assumption: Students need help finding summer jobs

Idea: Let’s host a hiring event.

Implementation: Survey 50 students, interview 5 of them for more feedback about what they are interested in. Create a small event, invite 10 students, 5 employers, do a survey before and after to see how satisfied they were.

Sounds easy, but things go wrong all the time. Survey results don’t match what you expected, students don’t want to attend, ect. So what happens next?


“Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.”

That’s the original Amazon leadership principle. The issue is we often can’t commit wholly when innovating because we aren’t sure if it’s a good idea. So instead we need to set bounds for commitment.

Setting benchmarks
When we run a trial for an idea, we need to know when to call it quits if it doesn’t work, but we need to commit wholeheartedly within those bounds. We need to set a large enough scope to be able to test our assumption/idea, but not large enough that work could go to significant waste.

Say we want to test if students need university guidance, we come up with a plan we deem reasonable.

  1. Have 4 Accomplished panelists from an interesting university program
  2. 5 Social media posts on Instagram and Linkedin
  3. Email 10 teachers
  4. Message 50 Friends

If we get 20 people to listen in we will continue with the program, and we will put in significant effort to make it work. If we get 10 and we tried our best, something went wrong and we should rethink the activity. If we got 5 because we didn’t reach out to anyone and work hard, what did we accomplish? Nothing, we didn’t learn anything from the exercise.

Committing, Fully
Once you have verified an assumption, it’s all systems go. Do your best, commit to the initiative, set yourself up for success. You need to commit so that you can look your teammates and more importantly, yourself in the eyes and say “I did my best, I’m proud of my initiative”

Questions to think about

  1. What is a situation where your trust was broken?
  2. How would someone repair broken trust with you?
  3. When someone challenges your ideas, what do you do well and what can you improve on?
  4. What makes you trust someone?
  5. When is a time you were scared to share your opinion?
  6. What makes you want to listen to someone?
  7. How do you tell if you’re working hard enough?



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store