This You Must Do

Say What You Are Going To Do, Then Do It
by Ken Goldstein
Ninth in a Series of Ten

Of all the many lessons I have learned over the years in watching the difference between success and failure, this tiny bit of advice is the most basic concept, the easiest to understand, the most consistently impactful, and the most abused and violated. It comes down to this — all we have is our word. Credibility, trust, betting on talent, in the final analysis, it just does not get any more understandable than this:

Winners say what they are going to do, and then they do it.

Successful people don’t mince words, they are clear. They know themselves what matters, and they share that information with utter transparency to all with whom they come in contact. Then, having made a statement of purpose or declaration of intent, they put action behind their words. Successful people do not do this from time to time, they do it all the time. They do not differentiate claims and actions by tiers, they are predictably consistent. When you know someone believes what they are saying, and then will do what they say, you will follow them, you will invest in them, you will believe in them, and you will stick by them.

How hard or easy is this to pull off? Let’s start with the easiest of all possible promises. You bump into someone at a party, the mall, or a sporting event. You haven’t seen them in a while. You talk briefly but you are in a hurry. In departing, you say, “I will call you for lunch.”  Contrary to the Los Angeles standard exported lexicon, “I will call you for lunch” is not the same thing as saying, “Goodbye, I have to go now.” If “Goodbye, I have to go now” is what you mean, then say that, not a problem. It’s honest, it’s true, and it comes with no attachment. How many people have told me they will call me for lunch and then don’t? Too many. Would I do business with them? Probably not. If they can’t follow-up on a suggested lunch, how can I expect they will follow-up on anything more important?

Now let’s step it up. In order to get back to a task you think is more important than the one your boss is asking you about, you say to your anxious boss, “I will get you a report on that before the end of the week.” You have escaped, and perhaps you believe your boss will forget you said that. Your boss will not forget that, and the end of the week is Friday or Saturday, not Monday or Tuesday or never. Do you reinforce what you promised by doing it, or do you let it slide? If you really, really get jammed up, do you call or see your boss before the end of the week and ask forbearance, reminding your boss that you made a promise but suggesting that you have some other critical matters at hand and would like to re-prioritize this if possible before the deadline comes. How many people get this right? I promise you, not enough.

Here’s another step up. In a team meeting everyone agrees on a set of tasks. The engineers will write program code to execute a set of features, the marketing managers will develop collateral to evangelize that set of features, the sales representatives will tell their customers that this set of features is coming and when. Meeting adjourned, break huddle. A week later, the engineers got a better idea and developed a different set of features that are much more cool, the marketing managers created an online brochure and email campaign that described a set of features they always wanted but were never discussed, and the sales representatives secretly always hated the entire concept so they just never told any of the customers anything at all. How are we doing there? Some teamwork, huh? No alignment, no success path.  Happens every day.

Let’s step it up again. You are the CEO or CFO, you give earnings guidance to the street of $0.26 per share. On the earnings call you report $0.13, some unexpected problems emerged subsequent to your guidance. What do your shareholders think now? They think you missed your own guidance. You would have been better off not giving any guidance than giving poor guidance. In fact, saying “We don’t give guidance” is a strategy that many companies utilize, because they don’t want to be in a position of creating lack of faith in their understanding or leadership. So they say what they are going to do, not give guidance, and they do that. It may not be satisfying to everyone who follows the company, but it is honest and consistent, much better than being wrong by a factor of 50%.

What is the through line in all four of these cases? Dependability. It does not matter if it’s a promise for lunch, a promise to deliver a report, a promise to own a subset of a team’s tasks, or a promise on corporate performance to shareholders. The winning case is the one that builds trust and confidence, however simple or complex. I had the privilege to work for one of the most successful corporate CEOs of all time, and when he said he was going to do something, he did it, without a reminder, regardless of the circumstances under which he made the commitment, however casual. If he could do that with his schedule, how could I not be expected to do the same? It was a cultural mandate, and it built a bond I hold to this day.

How many people get this right? So few I could make you cry.  A student tells me they are going to send me their resume and they forget.  A colleague tells me they are going to have a friend they know look at our product proposal for feedback and they don’t. An employee tells me the current approach we are taking is wrong and I invite them to submit a better idea, never hear from them again.

Want to leap ahead of the pack? Save this point, glue it to your forehead, make it religion. Just by saying what you are going to do and then doing it — right or wrong, good or bad — you are leaping to the front of the line. You may think I am kidding and I am not. Other tasks are hard, this one really is that easy. Yes, Just Do It.