The “My Word is My Bond” Entrepreneur

This blog is a bit of a lament. I grew up in my industry during the 1970s and 1980s when a handshake was still as meaningful as written documentation. The proverbial handshake was not necessarily a legal contract, but it might as well have been. Once we gave our word, nothing could change the follow-through on our intent. Legal documentation was merely a formality and there was not a lot of haggling over the verbiage. Sadly, this notion of “my word is my bond” has diminished in recent times.

We recently sold two large apartment communities that were part of our portfolio for several years. We went through a painstaking process of listing the properties for sale with a national brokerage firm. The properties were marketed extensively, and we issued a call for offers. Dozens of offers were received, and we opted to have further discussions with the top ten bidders. Then we made a call for “best and final” offers. Once those offers were received, we interviewed the top four bidders and determined a winner. We then told the winners verbally that we were accepting their best and final bid. In both instances, one of the unsuccessful bidders reached out within 24-hours and increased their offer. In one case, the increase was $250,000, and in the other case it was $750,000 higher. In our minds there was no decision to be made. We had already given our word to the initial winning bidders and we had no problem staying with their offers, even though it cost us $1 million.

Contrast that with a situation that occurred with another of our business units. This business is involved in the syndication of historic tax credits. We offered term sheets to a developer who verbally accepted our offer and confirmed the acceptance in an e-mail. A couple of weeks passed, and we had not received a return of the term sheets signed by the developer. When we reached out to the developer he apologized and said that he had decided to accept an offer from another tax credit syndicator. Legally, he had every right to do this. But it certainly left a sour taste in our mouths. For sure, his word was not his bond, and he did not even have the courtesy to let us know without being prompted.

It all boils down to the simple yet powerful premise of Integrity. Our company embraces five Core Values, one of which is Integrity. We are proud of the fact that we can demonstrate in real time that we practice what we preach. Integrity used to be a foundational principle for entrepreneurship. I believe that it still is, but it has become devalued – especially where the almighty dollar is involved. The problem is compounded by the fact that too many businesses throw around terms such as “integrity” and “honesty” but fail to deliver on them. Hearing Honest Harry yap about how you can trust him to sell you a car at “$1 over invoice” has caused society to tune out.

So, what do we do about this sad fact of life? At this point, I do not really care about whether I can believe that the word of other entrepreneurs is their bond. Instead, we will just keep doing things the old-fashioned way. If I tell you something, you can believe it whether we have a legal document or not. Hopefully, you will treat me the same way. If I screw-up, I will step up and make it right whether I have a legal document compelling me to do so or not. I cannot count the number of times over the course of my career this has happened – at a cost of literally millions of dollars. This may not be the smartest business decision, but it is the right thing to do, and I can sleep at night.

At the end of the day, as entrepreneurs we should want to be judged by the character we display over the course of our careers rather than the amount of money we will have made.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Handshake Heard Around the World

Recently we offered a managerial position to a prospective team member. All of the background screening was complete and he accepted the offer. We even had a firm starting date and appreciated the fact that he felt that he needed to give a two week notice to his current employer. A few days before his starting date he let us know that he wouldn’t be coming to work with us after all. It seems that his employer had offered him $12,000 more annually and he was going to stay put. There is so much wrong with this that I don’t know exactly where to start. Of course this isn’t the first time this has happened. And I know that other businesses have encountered the same thing.

From the prospective team member’s standpoint I have a real problem with this individual making a commitment and then reneging. Oh, I’ve heard all sorts of rationalization. “This is just the way of the world today.” Or, “You can’t really blame someone for wanting to simply take care of his family.” And, “This is classic Millennial behavior.” To all of this I say . . . hogwash. Strong relationships are built on commitment. It’s this way in a marriage, in a friendship, in business and certainly between an employer and an employee. Yet, some people see a potential job shift as a way to force their current employer to give them a raise – never mind that they’ve led their prospective employer down the primrose path.

Let’s look at the other side of the equation. By offering more money not to leave, the current employer is effectively saying to its employee, “We’ve been underpaying you all along and we knew it.” How does this reflect on the commitment of the employer? How is it that on one day an employee is worth what he has been paid all along, and the next day he’s suddenly worth $12,000 a year more? Why would the employee want to continue working for a company that does this?

One of our company’s five core values is Commitment. It’s definition – “We hold ourselves accountable and deliver on our promises.” Our rationale – “When we are fully committed, we are reliable and work diligently. Our commitment fosters dedication and loyalty.” We also wrap this core value with individual and organizational actions. From an individual perspective, “I take responsibility for my roles and accountabilities and strive to surpass expectations. I do what I say; I follow through and take ownership for my actions. I contribute constructive input for our company when requested or when needed.” From an organizational perspective, “Our leaders follow through and honor their commitments. Our leaders strive to make decisions keeping in mind the company, team members, customers and stakeholders. Our leaders are dedicated to supporting their team members so they can fulfill their commitments.”

In 1975, I interviewed for several jobs as I was about to graduate from college. I agreed to work for my current company and was immediately contacted by another prospective employer and offered a position that would have paid more. The thought never crossed my mind to even consider the offer because I had already made a commitment to my current firm. That was the way of the world in 1975. Sadly, as a society we’ve lost the meaning of the word Commitment.

For entrepreneurs trying to build a business, probably the most valuable resource we have is people. Without people, it’s virtually impossible to build an organization that provides a product or service to our customers. To attract and retain people we must demonstrate commitment in many forms. Our team members need to see that we are committed to making certain they are paid as promised. They need to know that we as leaders are committed to their well-being; to their growth and development, and to the long-term sustainability of our organizations. Perhaps by modeling commitment on our end, we can attract team members who will value this and become dedicated and loyal over the long haul.

I recommend that every entrepreneur adopt Commitment as a core value. By delivering on it each day, maybe it’s possible that the tide will turn and we can return to the day when our word is our bond.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 102 – Sabotage?

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Bond

Question: I’ve noticed that some people aren’t following through and doing what they say they’ll do. Does it seem like this has become more of a problem over the years?

Answer: What you are describing has been occurring for time in memoriam so I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s become worse. And it’s not only a crucial issue for entrepreneurs but for everyone else as well. At the root of this is a simple word . . . commitment.

I’m an old school kind of guy and believe that a commitment is the same as a promise. It’s about trust and a my-word-is-my-bond mindset. How we deliver on our commitments to others begins with how we deliver on commitments to ourselves. My parents instilled in me a deep sense of discipline and pride when I was growing up. I had a wide range of chores – some of which I did not particularly like. I practiced the piano for 30-minutes at 5:30 AM on weekdays. I wasn’t given the option of scrapping a practice session. I know I was driven not to disappoint my parents – but in the process they taught me to take pride in what I did and not to disappoint myself. Thus, I learned how to make commitments to myself and keep them.

How can we learn to make meaningful commitments to ourselves? It starts with simple things. Perhaps we say, “I’m going to commit to an exercise program five days a week.” How seriously do we take such a commitment? If we exercise for a couple of weeks and then fall off the wagon, we undoubtedly may rationalize quitting. But are we being true to the bond we’ve created with ourselves? If we can’t even keep the commitments we make to ourselves, how will we fare when we make commitments to others – commitments that others trust and count on us to keep?

If we say to ourselves, “I will try,” or “I think I can,” that’s not really a commitment. When we say “I will,” it is. When we frame commitment to “my word is my bond” and “I will,” we can now set clear standards of accountability for ourselves. I can ask myself, did I keep my word when I said “I will?” This is a very easy question to answer – it’s either yes or no.

Finally, are we prepared to go above and beyond our “legal” obligation to deliver on a commitment? In other words, do we say we’ll do something and if we fail, do we point to the “fine print” and say we’ve measured up anyway? Years ago, one of our sales associates ran into financial difficulties. We loaned him some money and told him to pay us back when he got back on his feet. He was very appreciative and assured us that he would do so. We chose not to put anything in writing and instead operated on the basis of trust. A year later, this associate was closing transactions and making good money. Not once did he ever acknowledge his commitment to pay us back. Because we had no formal contract with him, I suppose the case could be made that he had no legal obligation to pay us back. We never really defined what it meant for him to be “back on his feet.” But he knew what it meant and so did we.

We make commitments only when we are intentional about delivering on them 100%. And when we meet the obligations we commit to ourselves, we are then ready to take the sacred step of honoring the trust placed in us by others.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

commitment