When I graduated from college many years ago, I went to work at Bell Labs, one of the pre-eminent R&D organizations in the world, during its glory days. I worked there for about 20 years before moving on to a variety of smaller companies and individual consulting engagements. I learned a lot about engineering and professionalism during my time at Bell Labs from both good and bad role models. While you can learn a lot from both, and often even learn more from bad role models (see Learn From Good Role Models; Learn More From Bad!), the person who I learned the most from was an exceptionally good role model. John Sheehan (see photo) was one of my early managers and has had a profound impact on me as an engineer, a manager, and a person. His capabilities, outlook, and professional approach led him to deservedly rise to high positions in the Bell Labs organization. John remains a good friend and role model. John had an expression that was his guiding principle; one that I adopted and that has served me well. It is, “Say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you say you’ll do”. It is an expression that can guide everyone who adopts it well, at work and in life. I recommend it highly to everyone.
Let’s dissect this expression by discussing each of its parts.
First, “Say what you mean”. How many people do you know who say what they think the people they’re talking to want or expect to hear rather than speaking the unvarnished facts? Or present things in “politically correct” terminology, often obfuscating what they’re saying in seemingly “proper” language. When this happens, the facts are not really presented. Often when they speak in this fashion, the people they’re speaking with need to apply a “reverse translator” (or bullsh!t filter) to try to convert what has been said to what was really meant (see Can You Hear Me Now?). This approach is extremely inefficient and often misleading or even dangerous. Isn’t it better to hear what was meant rather than what the speaker thinks you want to hear? How can people expect to make informed decisions if the person speaking to them isn’t saying what he/she means? By really saying what you mean, you cut through the clutter and present the facts or your direct opinion so that things can be discussed meaningfully without going through a kabuki dance. While this direct approach of saying what you mean may startle, surprise, or discomfort others, you’re really better off knowing directly what was meant rather than having to interpret, often incorrectly. This doesn’t mean you should be insulting, just direct.
Next, “Mean what you say”. If you say what you mean, but you don’t really mean what you say, what have you gained or what has the person you’re speaking with gained? If you don’t mean what you say, you’re lying or at least misleading. There may be times when you want to be careful not to hurt someone’s feelings or betray a trust, but that means being diplomatic, not misleading. If you say what you mean, and mean what you say, you can build a foundation of trust. You speak your mind, and stand behind what you’re saying. Done right, people will recognize that while they may not always like or agree with what you say, they know they will always get the straight scoop from you. By not coupling these two parts together, trust relationships will become difficult if not impossible.
Finally, “Do what you say you’ll do”. If you commit to do something, follow through! Deliver on what you’ve promised. Let people see that your word is your bond. If circumstances prevent you from delivering fully, report back the cause of the problem. By saying what you mean and meaning what you say, you’ve gone a long way to build trust with the people you work and deal with. If you don’t then follow through on your commitments, that trust will not only be squandered, it will leave a very bad taste in other people’s mouths. You’ve led them to believe you and trust you, and then you let them down. Trust is difficult to build, but extremely easy to destroy (see Trust Me, I'm Not Like The Others!). Be the person you would like to be and the person you would like others to be.
This is much like the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, but I believe “Say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you say you’ll do” goes beyond that. It lets people know that you are a straight shooter who tells it like it is and delivers on your commitments. You are someone who can be trusted and valued.
Now of course, we’re all human and we sometimes fall short of our ideal behavior. No one is perfect. Still, when that happens, recognize it (sometimes this may be difficult, but as they say recognizing that you have a problem is a critical first step), apologize sincerely for falling short, and do what is required to correct your shortfall and go beyond what is required. Do this willingly and with gusto. With such a positive attitude you can recover lost trust. Without such an attitude, hard earned trust may be lost forever.
It is for others to tell whether I live up to this credo, for trust is earned and not owed. I hope that I do, and I strongly recommend this to others. So remember, “Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, and Do What You Say You’ll Do!” Right, John?