Originally published on Forbes.com

When I started my business in 1998, we had one mission. We wanted to be the best marketing firm on the planet for midsize professional services firms. For 10 years, this mission guided us until it became clear that it wasn’t big enough. That led to mission 2.0: Unite marketing and sales teams around best practices. That produced some huge breakthroughs for clients. But fast forward yet another decade and even that mission was inadequate.

Enter mission 3.0: Align leaders to stimulate next-level growth. In fact, after more than 23 years of serving clients, I have come to believe that this has been the missing ingredient all along.

 

How We Discovered Our Mission 3.0

About seven years ago, I began to assess the impact we’d had on clients. My true north in evaluating our company has always been client impact. What I found was actually quite startling.

I reviewed about 70 clients that we had served and began to compare them across several metrics. Those included:

  • Talent: Did they have the talent they needed as an organization?
  • Budget: Did they invest enough in sales and marketing best practices?
  • Industry: Were they in a declining, ascending or flat industry?
  • Services: Was there enough demand for their services from ideal prospects?
  • Strategy: Did they make great decisions strategically, at the right moments?
  • Plan: Did they have a business plan and was it on-target for their goals?
  • Accountability: Did they actually do what they committed to do?

As I began to analyze these clients, I found that about five of them actually broke through to their next level. Here’s what I mean by “broke through.” These organizations:

  • Outperformed their peers in revenue, growth, expansion and client acquisition.
  • Realized the strategic vision of their leadership teams.
  • Lived up to or surpassed their potential, given their available resources.
  • Consistently punched above their weight class, where the marketplace saw them as far more successful than they actually were.
  • Positioned for the best outcomes for their stakeholders, including liquidity events that produced, in some instances, wealth that will outlive the stakeholders.

As I began to ponder those clients who broke through versus those who did not, I arrived at one simple conclusion: The trust that existed between the senior leaders was the single greatest indicator of breakthroughs.

 

The Link Between Trust, Alignment And Performance

I have come to believe that the biggest question professionals ask themselves today is this: Will I be able to achieve my dreams at this company? If the answer is consistently “yes,” they stay. If they answer “no,” they may underperform or look for a new company. But there is yet another question that closely follows: How much am I willing to give this company?

I believe the answer to that question — how much I’m willing to give­ — is the ultimate determinant of breakthroughs. Why do I say this? As I examined those 70 companies, I reflected on their history. Most of our clients stay with us for a decade, so this gives me ample opportunity to understand their journey. Every single client faced good and bad times. They experienced market downturns and upswings.

But at some point, nearly all of these companies experienced an existential threat of some type. These threats served as a dividing line. Leaders who deeply trusted each other persevered through the hardship, innovating and rebirthing a new era in the life of their business. They pulled together even harder, focusing their energies on the end game.

Leaders of companies where trust was shallow or weak did the opposite. They pulled apart. They nurtured old grudges, plotted against each other in clandestine meetings and played the blame game. They fought, usually for personal reasons, rather than uniting for the common good. They lost sight of the end game.

In healthy companies, existential threats produced greater unity. In unhealthy companies, the same type of threats exacerbated deep fault lines.

Here’s why this matters: When I examined what happened in the five years after the threat abated, healthy companies accelerated forward, propelled by aligned leaders. Unhealthy companies remained flat or broke apart. This is why I have come to believe that deep trust between leaders is the single greatest determinant of next-level growth.

 

A Litmus Test For Leader Alignment

Given my analyses, I’d like to ask you some questions. Does your leadership team have a deep level of trust? Here is a simple litmus test that can help you gauge this. Can you describe five life experiences, for everyone on your leadership team, that shaped their values and how they make decisions today? If you can’t, this probably means you have not actively fostered the kind of trust that can sustain your business through the next great trial that is almost certainly ahead of you.

Here are some additional questions I recommend:

  • Do you have a common vision that everyone on your leadership team believes in regarding where you are going, why you exist and what you value?
  • Have you actively fostered trust, at the deepest levels, between your leaders by intentionally sharing your stories, family history and dreams for the future?
  • Are you all, as a team, willing to set aside personal preferences to achieve something collectively that is greater than what any of you could achieve individually?
  • Do you practice a “best idea wins” decision-making process?
  • Do you spend time talking to each other informally about your children, grandchildren, family vacations and upcoming events?

The leadership teams at the companies that broke through did not always see things eye to eye. In fact, they often didn’t. But they trusted each other enough to have the kinds of hard conversations that allowed them to hammer out a new vision for their business. If one of the ideas they put forward didn’t end up winning, they didn’t take it personally. Can you say the same for your leadership team?