Trust Trumps Everything

Editor’s note: In this series, we share personal innovation stories from a new book by Luis Solis; Innovation Alchemists: what every CEO needs to know to hire the right Chief Innovation Officer

Successful Chief Innovation Officers give their employees room to experiment, providing air cover for them, running interference, and in general respecting, trusting and supporting them

My first boss at Bell Labs YELLED. But, he was an equal-opportunity yeller — though I was not an equal-opportunity yellee! When he shouted at me in my first department meeting, I got up and nicely told him that when he wanted to talk, not yell, I’d be in my office and walked out. I was 20 years old, just out of Brown University, and sitting among a group of aghast Ph.D.’s. Perhaps this was not the best initial career move…or perhaps it was. About 30 minutes later, he walked into my office and apologized. He never yelled at me again (though he did keep yelling at the rest of the team), and he became one of three manager-mentors that powerfully and positively shaped my career at Bell Labs and AT&T. These three manager-mentors taught me to manage others and myself.

Lessons from my 1st Boss

That first boss, the yeller, gave me multiple opportunities for visibility up to the president of Bell Labs, coaching me all the way for success. He went out on a personal limb to make me the first person promoted to Member of Technical Staff (MTS) without a Ph.D. or M.S., and under the age of 25. He gave me the freedom to design my own role and the autonomy to accomplish my goals, only “interfering” to remove obstacles and give me even more visibility. When I was going to quit to move to Ohio and marry my husband, who had left Basic Research at Bell Labs to teach Physics at Oberlin College, he pulled strings with HR and his counterpart at AT&T for our project (and my next boss) so I wouldn’t quit. These two men arranged my transfer to my new boss’s organization, moved me to Oberlin, Ohio and flew me back and forth for nine years…just so I wouldn’t quit. They made it clear that I mattered, and that my personal happiness was important to them, personally and professionally. My trust in them was complete, to say the least.

Lesson: Let Your People Go

When you find great talent, do what you need to in order to encourage and support them. Treat them fairly and do what’s right for them and the organization over what’s right for you personally. Give them opportunities to excel and succeed, provide air cover to experiment, and all them to fail when pursuing innovation. Be willing to take “personal” risks for the right people. Your people’s trust in you is your most important asset.

Takeaways from my 2nd Boss

I already knew my second boss because I’d been working with him, and his team, for a year or so with mutual respect, admiration and fun. He fully supported my telecommuting, since it proved, on many levels, the efficacy of the service we were designing. He funded a home office with every device imaginable for 1988, including a laptop and cell phone. I commuted weekly to New Jersey and monthly to Europe and Asia. Yet again, I designed my own job with my own set of outputs and outcomes — he provided the resources to make it happen and removed the obstacles that stood in my way. He taught me how to succeed at corporate politics without compromising my integrity, and he championed my work up the executive ladder. He “loaned” me to the president’s office for a special project that was a significant career opportunity. And, when the project was done, he helped me choose from my available options: stay in the executive suite, go with the business I’d helped start as a result of the project, or return to my organization. I did not want to stay with the executives — there were no role models for me in the C-suite (which they interpreted as no women and I clarified as no humans). I wanted to go back to my boss and his wonderfully addictive leadership style, but he pushed me to join the management team running the new business so I could continue to grow.  And he was always there for me…his trust in me and mine in him unwavering.

Lesson: Light the Fire and Clear the Path.

Guide your people’s passion and get out of the way. The autonomy and freedom I was given (many times asking forgiveness instead of permission) to create and do my job exponentially increased my passion, excitement and success. My manager-mentors made sure my passions aligned with organizational direction, and they gave me some high-level boundaries, resources, and introductions to make it happen. They removed obstacles, showed me how to handle challenges, provided opportunities, and took the blame while giving me the credit.

Learning from my 3rd Boss

The new business’s management team consisted of many Labroids (Bell Labs folks), and my next boss also believed in autonomy, outcomes over outputs, customer-centricity, and developing his people. The experiences, opportunities, successes, failures, and learning’s during that “start-up” time were amazing, and we had a lot of fun creating a new business and separate culture outside of the mother ship. While working for him, I had my first child. In addition to the very generous maternity leave benefits, his support and communication with the rest of the team in New Jersey made it possible for me to work from home, without travel, and still have significant impact on the business. For him, the fact I wasn’t in New Jersey meant I had a politically unbiased perspective on the business’s needs. He’d handle the politics; I’d handle getting the work done with my team. To have a boss you could trust to keep you ‘present’ even when you weren’t was rare indeed. Unfortunately, AT&T was changing dramatically, and not positively. We all started leaving. But to this day, my friendship with my former boss remains strong.

Lesson: Remember, They’re Human.

Many companies treat their employees as employees — nicely and kindly, even generously — but not really as living, breathing humans. My manager-mentors made it clear that I mattered not just for what I could do, but also for who I was. It wasn’t just about the generous maternity leave or the work-from-home flexibility, although I was grateful for both. Boss #2, for instance, required that I take two consecutive weeks of vacation to fully relax. My assistant took care of everything and virtually banned me from checking email, even though we would still do the New York Times crossword puzzle every day — an important ritual for us no matter where I was in the world. While I had “official” vacation days, no one ever kept tabs on them unless the number to be carried over was too large. It was important to all my bosses that I learn from their successes and mistakes and not share their regrets.

Manager Mentors

What else did I learn from three incredible manager-mentors? While there were many lessons, this has stood out for me over the past 30 years: Trust trumps everything. And everything flows from trust — learning, credibility, accountability, a sense of purpose and a mission that makes “work” bigger than oneself.

Yes, I’ve been extremely blessed and my circumstances were, and unfortunately still are, atypical. But they don’t have to be. As you look at your organization, at your people, at your culture, please think about how you can apply just one of these lessons, perhaps even just one part of one lesson. The benefits last decades.

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Deb Mills-Scofield is an innovator, entrepreneur and non-traditional strategist…

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Deborah Mills-Scofield




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