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Make Promises You Can Keep

If people can't take you at your word, you've got serious problems. Here are 4 simple ways to straighten up and fly right.
- Magazine Contributor
3 min read

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This story appears in the February 2003 issue of Startups. Subscribe »

Politicians are famous for asking us to trust them; as they like to say, "My word is my bond." And, of course, many businesspeople just love to seal a deal with a handshake. Yet, as one infamous American president once said, "it depends on the meaning of the word 'is.' "

If we in business are to be taken at our word, everyone has to be on the same page as to what our words actually mean. So it's critical that there be no ambiguity in what we say. I guess this is where the lawyers enter the picture. They are great at creating documents that close the door on ambiguity. The only problem is, we mere mortals don't seem to understand the fine print. And so, it's back to giving your word and exchanging handshakes.

When you give your word, you must mean it. And you must not leave yourself a fistful of ways to break your word. Or, when the moment of truth comes, to have the excuse, "they should have seen it coming." Let me provide an example. I once worked for a company that was on the verge of bankruptcy 400 days a year. One day the owner apparently had had enough and called a meeting of her top assistants (there were three of us--it was a small company). She explained the dire straits of the company and said that each of us would be getting a 20 percent pay cut if things didn't dramatically improve in 90 days. But we'd all be saved from poverty if the company started to make a profit immediately.

Now, what she should have told us was that because of the situation we would absolutely be taking a 20 percent pay cut in 90 days and that now would be a good time to start looking for new jobs. You see, her word wasn't her bond. She left herself an awful lot of leeway to tell us 90 days hence that things were still miserable and she just hated to implement the pay cuts but she had no choice. By giving us an out that was not under our control, she knew from day one what the endgame would be.

You see, in a small company, a lot of managers are leaders of people but aren't given any budget authority. For those 90 days, she continued her profligate spending, and we were helpless to do anything about it. Her other two top assistants quit about a month into the 90 days. I stayed on for a couple of additional months hoping to learn something about business turnarounds. The only thing I learned was how painful it can be to be misled and to see the doors of a company close--a company that actually made a quality product.

I still believe that company could have survived and prospered. But the owner chose to give us her word and then did everything to sabotage the turnaround.

So if you long for simpler times when a person's word was his or her bond, follow these simple rules:

1. Make promises/contracts you intend to keep.
2. Believe in the result.
3. Don't leave wiggle room.
4. Honor your word without exception.

Follow those four simple rules, and people will call you a person of your word, the greatest compliment an entrepreneur can ever receive.

Rod Walsh and Dan Carrison are the founding partners of Semper Fi Consulting in Sherman Oaks, California, and the authors of Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way.

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