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Trust and The Savvy Director

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear author Brian Hayward speak about his new book, The Great Chair: A Window on Effective Board Leadership. I was particularly struck by Brian’s comments on the topic of trust in the boardroom, and how it links to the ability to influence others.

Brian’s book is all about board chairs, and why they are more important than ever for effective governance, so his writing reflects the importance of trust in the board chair’s relationship to the CEO on the one hand, and to other board directors on the other hand. These are the two “dimensions of trust” that the board chair must deliberately cultivate to be effective.

“So, bottom line, chairs rely on personal influence. And there is only one source of personal influence. That is trust. Take trust away from any relationship and you knock the legs out from under ability to influence.” – Brian Hayward, The Great Chair

While only a few directors can occupy the head chair, all of us are dependent on the trust factor to be able to fulfill our director responsibilities to the best of our abilities. When a director is new to a board, they are often given the benefit of the doubt, at least for a while. But that is not the same thing as being trusted. Trust takes time. And for most of us, it takes a deliberate effort. But investing the time and effort is worth it.

Why? Because without trust, directors may not feel safe enough to ask the difficult questions that need to be asked, or to accept feedback from others, or to listen with an open mind. If you ever hope to change other directors’ minds – and thereby influence the board’s position – then trust is absolutely a necessary pre-condition. But as Brian pointed out in his talk, building trust is not taught in any governance education.

This got me thinking about how trust aligns with the Savvy Director Framework (click here to download the framework), and how directors like us, who may or may not be board chairs, might go about building trust.


A Model for Building Trust

When it comes to building trust, the dictionary definition - “firm belief in the character, strength, or truth of someone or something” – is not particularly helpful.

It’s far more useful to think about how trust between people actually comes about. Paul J. Zak’s article ‘How Our Brains Decide When to Trust’, sheds some light on how our human brains allow us (unlike other animals) to trust and collaborate with others outside of our own immediate social group.

According to Zak, “Over the past 20 years, research has revealed why we trust strangers, which leadership behaviors lead to the breakdown of trust, and how insights from neuroscience can help colleagues build trust with each other.”

“To trust someone, especially someone unfamiliar to us, our brains build a model of what the person is likely to do and why. …. And the other person intuitively does this about us, too. That means humans are constantly engaged in a two-sided trust game: Should I trust you? and How much do you trust me?” – Paul J. Zak

Based on research, author and consultant Ken Blanchard developed the ABCD Trust Model to help organizational leaders understand the essential elements to build trust. Developed for workplaces, the ABCD model is a useful place to begin considering the behaviors that will help a director build trust in the boardroom.

The model consists of four elements: Able, Believable, Connected, and Dependable. Let’s explore each one of these elements further and consider how a savvy director might model them in the boardroom.

A is for Able

This element of the trust model is all about competence, knowledge, and skills. To be trustworthy on any given topic, a person must be able to demonstrate that they understand the subject and, if applicable, they can properly perform the tasks associated with that subject. After all, why would your views be worth listening to, or your advice worth heeding, if you don’t know what you’re talking about?

In the boardroom, in order to earn the trust of other directors, you must display competence in four areas – what we at DirectorPrep call The Building Blocks of Governance Skills. These are:

  1.  The industry, sector or profession. You’ve got to understand the environment in which the organization operates in, know some key facts about the industry, and get a handle on the trends that are impacting it.
  2. The organization. You’ll need to know the history of the organization, its business model and financial situation, its strategy and key risks, and its people, culture and major stakeholders.
  3. The Board. You should find out about the board’s governance model, structure, operation and key roles. But more than anything, you need to get to know your fellow board members so you can understand the board’s culture and interpersonal dynamics – how issues are dealt with and how decisions are made.
  4. Board Governance. You need to know the basics of board governance, the role and responsibility of a board of directors, your duties as a director, as well as the potential liabilities and how you are protected.

The Able element of the trust model is aligned with two Savvy Director habits:

  • Build Governance Skills. Access the resources you need to understand the board’s role and your responsibilities as a director.
  • Think Independently. See with your own eyes. Avoid Groupthink and challenge the status quo in a respectful manner.


B is for Believable

Believability is about honesty and sincerity. A person earns others’ trust when they are honest in their words and actions. If they say one thing, but their actions don’t reflect their words, others will naturally distrust them.

In the boardroom, you can demonstrate believability in a number of ways:

  • Say what you actually think. Don't beat around the bush and don’t pretend to agree or exaggerate your disagreement.
  • Keep confidences. What happens in the boardroom stays in the boardroom.
  • Don’t spread rumours. Don’t gossip about other directors behind their backs.
  • Admit your weakness or error. Be honest if a discussion is outside your area of expertise.
  • Give credit where credit is due. Don’t take credit for management's work.
  • Act in accordance with your values. No matter what.

The Believable element of the trust model is most closely aligned with this Savvy Director habit – Demonstrate Courage. Maintain your integrity. Don’t be afraid to do the right thing for the right reason.


C is for Connected

This element of the trust model is about empathy, openness and the ability to form human relationships. Being connected is important because trust depends not just on thoughts, but on feelings. To be trustworthy, a person needs to share their own emotions and also respect the emotions of others. If not, they come across as unemotional and impersonal, making it hard for others to predict their actions.

Here are some of the boardroom behaviors that help build trust:

  • Ask Open Questions. (See our earlier blog, “It’s Not Just What You Ask, But How You Ask It”.)
  • Listen to what others have to say. (See our earlier blog, Listening Skills for Influence in the Boardroom.)
  • Praise others. If the CEO or a fellow director makes a good point, be sure to acknowledge it.
  • Ask for feedback. Don’t just ask, listen and act on the feedback.
  • Reveal yourself. Show that there’s more to you than just being a director.
  • Share information. Withholding information, or sharing it only with a select few, is counter-productive.
  • Avoid board politics. Don’t play people off against each other.

The Connected element of the trust model is aligned with two Savvy Director habits:

  • Ask Great Questions. Stay curious. Help the board move forward with well thought-out questions that get to the heart of issues.
  • Collaborate with Others. Treat the board and management with respect. Work towards a common understanding.


D is for Dependable

Dependability is about being reliable, accountable and consistent. To be trustworthy, people need to do what they said they would do, when they said they would do it, to the quality they committed to. Otherwise, they can’t be depended on and they can’t be trusted.

A board director can demonstrate their dependability in a few simple ways.

  • Attend meetings consistently. Be absent only with good cause and be sure to provide advance notice if you can’t make it.
  • Show up to meetings on time. The board’s time is valuable. Don’t waste it.
  • Be well-prepared. Know what’s on the agenda, read and think about the material, and prepare some questions. Be ready to participate fully in discussions.
  • Follow through on your commitments. If you made a commitment to some task, deliver on it. Review the minutes to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.

The Dependable element of the trust model is most closely aligned with this Savvy Director habit – Prepare for Meetings. Spend time before each meeting so you are ready to add real value to board and committee discussions.


Your takeaways:

  • If you are consistently practicing the Six Key Habits of The Savvy Director, you will build trust with the management team and your fellow board members.
  • With a foundation of trust, you will find that you are in a position to add value and influence decisions.
  • The graphic below displays how the elements of the ABCD Trust Model are inter-related with The Savvy Director Framework. 


Leave a comment below to get in on the conversation.

Thank you.


Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of – an online membership with practical tools for board directors who choose a growth mindset. 

Originally published October 10, 2021


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