The Big Idea: Do what you say you will do.
By Tim Hayes
After a very enjoyable and productive week in Texas on a client assignment, I looked out the window of the plane as it landed in Pittsburgh to see a heavy snowfall well under way. Back in my car, I began the slippery, slow drive back to my home, about 30 miles off. But about halfway there, traffic came to a dead stop.
In my headlights stood a Pennsylvania State Trooper, forcefully instructing a state highway snowplow driver to run his truck up and down a two-mile hill that had become treacherous. The trooper would hold traffic at the foot of the hill while the plow cleared the slope for safe passage. So away went the truck, lights flashing, plow plowing, off into the winter’s night.
And he never returned. An hour later, we hadn’t moved and about five more inches of snow had piled up on the hill before us.
It reminded me of a cranky, terribly funny, great old lady I used to work across from many years ago named Olga. She ran the books for the Corporate Communications Department and took no guff from anybody, even the executives. When someone would give her an uninformed answer, or plead ignorance on an expense report, or say or do anything she deemed stupid or spineless, she had a pat response that would end the discussion instantly.
Crusty old Olga would look the poor sap in the eye and ask, the sarcasm dripping from her tobacco-damaged larynx, “Am I speaking English?”
You can take university courses in ethics. You can study the titans of Greek philosophy. You can go to self-help seminars or order CDs on late-night TV infomercials. But I can save you a lot of time and money with a simple, foolproof, never-been-known-to-fail standard: Do what you say you will do.
How many millions of executives, politicians, celebrities, spouses, school children, employees, friends, you name it, have learned this the hard way – occasionally with disastrous economic, social, career- or relationship-busting results?
As professional communicators, the lesson for me and my counterparts remains taking our roles as the “Jiminy Crickets” – otherwise known as the consciences – of our organizations very seriously. Carefully consider what’s being promised in a speech or news release. Ask the uncomfortable questions internally. Can we live up to what’s being said? If not, how can we restate our position to avoid that negative feedback?
It’s easy to always say the right thing. It’s hard to always do it. But your character, credibility, and reputation rest on those two concepts matching up at all times.
That snowplow driver endangered the lives of thousands of commuters that night by saying he’d do one thing and doing something else. I eventually made it up that hill, as did most drivers.
But as my little sedan dug in and continued its climb, I kept wishing for one thing – to have been there when the State Trooper finally found that guy again. “Am I speaking English?” would be the kindest thing he’d say, I’m guessing.