I was recently in a client’s office, and they had an interesting collage of words and images hung on their wall, trying to summarize the culture they wanted to create for their employees. One section stood out to me. It said “Narrow your say-do gap” next to the word “Commitment.” I thought it was a great way for the client to manage their team’s expectations. And it must be working. The company has a love affair with their leadership team, evidenced by their employees long tenure with the company and the very high reviews of their CEO on Glassdoor. There are some juicy nuggets in here -- something we can all learn as we try to be good leaders with a narrow say-do gap.
What is the say-do gap?
Let’s first define the say-do gap, so we know exactly what we are trying to narrow. Just as the name suggests, as a good leader and fellow employee, it is important that you practice what you preach. If you tell your team you are going to do something, do it. The better you follow through on your stated promises with visible actions, the more narrow your say-do gap.
Why is a wide say-do gap bad?
A lot of bad managers give lip service -- say they are going to do something but never follow through. All that does is irritate everyone in the office and deliver a deadly blow to the leader's credibility. If your employees can’t trust you to honor your word, they will never remain loyal to you. Companies with a wide say-do gap typically have a very poor morale in the office and experience high levels of employee turnover, as employees become disgruntled by mismanagement of unrealized expectations.
A wide-gap case study.
I have been exposed to a lot of poor leaders during my work at Red Rocket. The relationship with that CEO typically starts out fine. They say they have a problem they want to fix, and they are committed to doing whatever is necessary to fix the problem (e.g., capital investment, new incentives, new hires). But, after the project starts and recommendations are made -- when it's really time to pull the trigger -- they never follow through. And worse yet, they say they are working on it, but really have no intention of actually doing it.
Maybe they are concerned about the resulting dilution to their ownership that would come from a financing or new stock option plan. Maybe they are debt averse, or maybe they just don’t agree with their team’s recommendations and prefer to avoid conflict. Whatever the reason, they get the “engines of change” up and running -- which gets their team excited -- but when push comes to shove, no actions are taken, and their entire team ends up disappointed in the process.
A narrow-gap case study.
On the flipside, let’s remember my case study from my time at iExplore, right after 9-11, with the travel business imploding in the wake of terrorism. I was always honest with my team, both in good times and in bad. I always followed through on any promises I made to the team. If I told them we were going to raise new capital, we did. If I said we would sign a new partnership, we did. And, that history of a narrow say-do gap between 1999-2001 gained me the trust of our team over time and earned me what would become much needed “trust me capital” when the crap hit the fan on Sept. 11, 2001.
More specifically, iExplore should have gone out of business. Revenues stopped coming in, as people stopped traveling. We had a large burn rate carrying a staff of 35 employees. And, our investors went running for the hills. So when I had to terminate all employees, and ask 12 of them to volunteer their time for three months (on the hopes of me raising a new round of capital and getting their volunteered back-pay funded), that was a monumental ask. But our team was passionate about our business, and they trusted me to follow through, which I did. I got new funding in January 2012, and all their earned pay from their volunteered fourth quarter of 2001 was paid in full.
The point here is not how we saved the company. The point is I would have never been given the opportunity to save the company if I had anything other than a narrow say-do gap in the two years leading up to that event. Trust matters in being a good leader -- perhaps more than anything else -- especially when things start to go wrong. That's when you need your team the most.
What does that mean to you?
Do a critical assessment of yourself. How many times do you promise to do something? Compare that to how many times you actually followed through. If the answer is close to a 100 percent follow-through rate, you're in good shape. But, the closer you get to 80 percent -- or dare I say 50 percent -- the damage you are doing to your leadership credibility may be too insurmountable to overcome. Don’t let this be you.