For a guy who leads a 75-person consulting firm in a challenging business climate, coaching a youth softball team ( ages 7 and 8 ) this Spring should be a piece of cake, right? I mean, how hard could it be? I have played and followed baseball all my life and coached older boys’ and girls’ teams for several years.
I was fairly well-prepared for most of the differences between 7 year-olds and 16 year-olds, but one thing surprised me: I started the season with 3 girls out of 11 who could catch and throw. Not a typo… 3 girls. Needless to say it has been an exciting and funny adventure. The girls are getting better and the coach is being humbled by the challenge.
The fundamental building blocks of success in softball and baseball are catching and throwing. Kids who do not learn to consistently, dependably catch and throw will eventually not be able to play the game. The “catching and throwing” of the game of business is making and keeping commitments. We often focus on other aspects of the sport at the expense of these fundamentals. At Keller Schroeder, our clients want to know one thing more than anything else: “If you tell me what you are going to do, and by when you will have it done, can I depend on you to do what you say?”
Making and keeping commitments builds trust and credibility. Those who are most trustworthy and credible are the ones to whom we give the most important assignments. Those who we trust most are the ones whose leadership we are most willing to follow. This is simple stuff. Why then do we experience such chronic underperformance in business when it comes to budget attainment, deadlines, and other unmet expectations?
There are several reasons, but some of the most important ones are:
(1) making commitments that cannot be kept,
(2) procrastinating about sharing the bad news when circumstances require that a commitment be revoked or changed, and
(3) simply not placing a high enough value on these fundamentals.
The foundational requirement of meeting commitments is that we do not accept ones that can’t be met. This seems simple. But it requires discipline and courage to say “no” when the marketplace is screaming “yes” to a combination of time, resources, and requirements that is impossible. Effective leaders will say “no” to the impossible and then do the hard work of negotiation to arrive at an agreeable and achievable goal.
Everyone makes a commitment at some point that turns out to be unattainable, due to changing circumstances or mistaken assumptions. It may seem more heroic to “amp up” the hours and effort in the face of an impossible commitment, but the wise choice is to communicate early and transparently when it looks as though a commitment is not going to be met. This affords all parties the best opportunity to construct a viable alternative to the original plan.
The “catching and throwing” equivalency in business of making and meeting commitments cannot be adequately developed if these fundamentals are only applied during high-stakes, big-game situations. Effective leaders are practicing the fundamentals every day. If the boss is always 10 minutes late to staff meetings, why should he be surprised if the team is 10 days late with their project deliverable? If cross-department communication standards are ignored internally, is it any surprise when one of these departments falls short of customers’ demands for timely order status updates?
Like most of the important building blocks of success in business, making and meeting commitments is not a skill-centered exercise. It is an attitude, a discipline, and a decision on how an individual or an organization will choose to do business. How well these fundamentals are stressed, developed, and modeled by leaders will determine in large part the final score for your team in the game of business.