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GILD 2013: Getting trust from the boss

October 14, 2013

If you think you have a lot of constituents to please, then you wouldn’t want to be in Rafiah Salim’s position as Assistant Secretary General for Human Resource Management at the United Nations in New York. In her session on “Trusted Influence,” she shared stories from her tenure that illustrated how she was able to earn trust that enabled her to influence change in this most bureaucratic of institutions. The way you earn trust depends on whose trust–the boss, the staff, or stakeholders–you are looking for.

Getting Trust from the Boss

Getting trust from the boss is easy–you just have to ask for it. For Rafiah, her boss was the secretary general of the UN, Kofi Annan, who gave her his support as well as that of the entire ninth floor.

Salim_Rafiah
Rafiah Salim, Former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations.

Getting trust from the staff members was a little more challenging. At the time there were 191 nationalities at the UN, so that meant working with people from all sorts of backgrounds. And they challenged Rafiah, asking what she knew about the UN. Her response was that she didn’t know anything about the UN, but she had a lot of experience implementing organizational change. She would bring that experience to them and they would provide the knowledge of the UN. And then she gave them training and brought them on board with every activity.

Getting Trust from Stakeholders

Finally, she had to get the trust of the stakeholders which, in this case, were the member states–about 200 of them. There were two main blocks to win over: the Western block and G77 and China. The Western block quickly accepted Rafiah so she focused on G77 and China, which was bigger. Her approach was to identify the most “difficult” group and win them over. It turns out, that was the Middle Eastern group and if she didn’t earn their trust, she’d never be able to implement any changes. She leveraged the fact that her great-grandfather had emigrated to Malaysia from Yemen, and that helped to establish a common connection.

But that wasn’t enough.

She still needed to earn their trust. She realized that the UN did not celebrate any Muslim holidays, so she decided to change that. She enlisted the support of Saudi Arabia and worked through the UN bureaucracy to establish two Muslim holidays. To make that happen, she was empowered to take away one of the existing holidays and took away President’s Day, the only UN holiday that was celebrated by just one country. As a result, Rafiah was viewed as a “super-heroine” by the Arab group. It may sound like adding a holiday may not be the most wide-reaching change, but it was critical in winning the support that ultimately enabled her to get a lot of significant changes through the General Assembly.

Understand What Matters to the Stakeholders

That’s the only way you can influence them. But you will only earn their trust if you are transparent and show that you don’t have any other agenda.

How do you earn trust?

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