I’ve been working in affordable housing for over 35 years. In this industry, as in life, a variety of organizations are forced to work together—nonprofits, for-profits, government agencies, investors, lenders, and the list goes on. Collaboration is the overarching theme that can’t be ignored. Our financial partners invest and then they regulate; the complex modes of financing bind us together with a shared mission, creating stable affordable homes for those in need. These relationships are irreplaceable, they make success possible, and they require an essential element: trust.

Jane Graf
Jane Graf

My lesson learned is all about trust. It’s said that trust is earned, and I agree completely. If you don’t take the time to gain the trust of your partners, you won’t sustain success. After years of watching and experimenting with what works for me, I have a short list of tips that lead to trust.

1. Display humility. This is my guiding principle in all things business. You may be the smartest person in the room, but so what? Does that mean you have the power or authority? Probably not. Sharing your weakness, your curiosity, the things you don’t know instead of everything you do know is the first and most important thing in engendering trust. Humility is not a weakness, it’s a strength.

2. Show up. The simple act of engagement and showing up for something you don’t control, wasn’t your idea, or that supports someone else will take you far. Trust can only be attained when someone believes you’re not motivated only by your self-interest.

3. Be patient. When I approach a deal, I know it will never happen entirely my way. Each player may have a different time line and gauge of success; these developments shove widely different business models together. The way forward is patience, with an unwavering commitment to collaborate.

4. Compromise. It’s an art form and essential to maintaining trust. In my experience, an antagonist–protagonist dynamic simply doesn’t work. Spending our precious time looking for where we agree will help break down where we disagree.

5. Be honest. This probably sounds obvious. Of course, we strive to be honest in our lives and assume honesty in our colleagues. My lesson learned regarding honesty is best described when I combine it with humility. It means admitting mistakes. In my experience, celebrating what we learned when we fail has much more impact than celebrating success. Owning up to what didn’t work, and making it right, not broadcasting our latest conquest, is a key to establishing trust.

I’ve learned many lessons throughout my career. Nothing has served me better than having the trust of partners I can count on and who can count on me. It’s a lesson worth perfecting.

Jane Graf is president and CEO of Mercy Housing, one of the nation’s largest affordable housing organizations.