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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies


Week 5 in a series of posts inspired by a family holiday through the southern states of the USA.

In Atlanta, we visited World of Coca Cola, a museum filled with artefacts and interactive exhibitions about the history of the world's best selling soft drink and their many other brands. A highlight for Harper was the tasting room which is probably the closest thing that any of us will ever get to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. You're given a cup and have as long as you like to wander around tasting over 100 different drinks from all around the world. It's a shortcut to diabetes, but it's got to be said it's a pretty amazing experience!

As well as tasting lots of drinks, meeting the Coca Cola Polar Bear for a selfie, taking part in a competition to see how good your sense of smell is (answer: not very) and going on a 3D cinematic adventure, you get to walk through a long tunnel where you learn all about the history of the drink and its invention. As with a number of other famous brands and items (McDonalds, the Philips Head Screw), the individual who took Coca Cola to its worldwide fame and success was not, in fact, the original inventor. That inventor, John Stith Pemberton, a pharmacist and Confederate Army veteran, came up with the formula in the late 1800s, but sold it to a businessman called Asa Griggs Candler, who founded the Coca Cola Company in 1892 and ran it until he was elected mayor of Atlanta in 1916.

Naturally, the formula for Coca Cola was, and still is, a very well kept secret, but in its earliest days, as Asa developed the formula he'd purchased (for a reported $2300), it was even better kept. In fact, as a big sign on the wall state, "The one person Asa Candler trusted with the formula was Asa Candler". He was so concerned with the recipe getting out and being replicated, he ordered all of the ingredients himself, from different sources, locked away all of the purchasing records for these ingredients and held the only key to the lock! Of course, this was partly a marketing strategy, designed to make consumers feel like they were buying something incredibly special and unique, but it was also an intellectual property matter. Wandering around the museum, looking at all of the old bottles and cans and memorabilia, this quote on the wall got me thinking about trust.

While it's probable that this particular story is not entirely true, there are no shortage of people in businesses who keep secrets. Sometimes it's situations like this, where the information is of genuine significance; perhaps there's a security issue, or a financial value to the information and they don't trust others to keep them. However trust is an interesting thing and I've found over the years that if leaders treat their people like they're not trustworthy, those people often grown into that feeling and behave in a way that justifies that decision.

What I mean by that is that showing someone that you trust them, perhaps starting with something less significant, like sharing a small vulnerability, not only do you get to see whether they are naturally an untrustworthy person, but you often encourage them to be trustworthy. By bringing people into your confidence, whether that be relating to you as an individual or an aspect of work, they will, more often than not in my experience, behave in a way which shows you that they deserve to be trusted, because they want to justify the trust you've shown. If, on the other hand, you are very overt about the fact that you don't trust people and you withhold information, refuse to delegate, etc, you often find that the lack of trust you display in your people manifests itself in them behaving in ways that are damaging you.

Of course, the latter approach creates a sort of vicious cycle where you choose not to trust people, so they shaft you, which makes you less likely to trust people in the future. That's a hard cycle to break. If you find yourself in it, it can be very useful to reflect on the approach you've taken and the messages that you have (perhaps unintentionally) been transmitting. Why would anyone behave in a trustworthy way towards someone who shows no trust in them? How could you display and role model trust without, initially, a huge risk?

Then there's another side to keeping secrets in business. Often people do this because they feel as though knowing the secret gives them value. If I'm the only person who knows how to do a certain thing or where to gather certain information, then I have value and I'm hard to get rid of. I saw this a lot in my corporate career. People who set themselves up as gatekeepers in order to cement their own position. It's a huge frustration to deal with people like this, it encourages others to find ways to work around them and negate their value and, importantly for the individual, it's a terrible strategy for longevity! If the only reason you're kept around is because you know or can do something that nobody else knows or can do, then in reality you're not only very easily replaced as soon as someone else is trained up, but you're also a single point of failure which any sensible organisation will seek to remove!

There are lots of ways to be valuable in an organisation and this is by far the worst! Think instead about how you can be someone who connects people together, shares, develops others, all while continuing to grow and develop yourself. That sort of value is sustainable, both for the organisation and, crucially, for you!

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