Seven Strategies for Keeping a Promise

Your company makes promises every day. It may promise to keep customer data safe, provide a drug to cure a troubling condition, or count votes in an election. And its promises matter—to customers’ and employees’ lives, shareholders’ financial security, and the public’s social and environmental well-being.

Like most other businesspeople, you probably care about keeping your word and will go the extra mile to fulfill a commitment. Yet we no longer live in a world of lone rangers. Yes, you need to be accountable for your own commitments. But if your team does not coordinate to provide a unified experience to customers, employees, or other stakeholders, your efforts create confusion and complexity, and your company promises fall prey to “commitment drift.”

To keep its promises—and reap the rewards of high trust, loyal customers, engaged employees, and agile execution—your company needs leaders who can ensure that individual commitment adds up to company promises kept. The following seven strategies will help.

1. Make fewer, better commitments. 

It can be tempting to make promises that show you want to collaborate. But you may be committing to something that takes your time and resources and doesn’t actually create value for the other party. Before you commit, take time to explore your stakeholders’ needs, so that you can target your commitments to the things that will really make a difference.

To keep its promises—and reap the rewards of high trust, loyal customers, engaged employees, and agile execution—your company needs leaders who can ensure that individual commitment adds up to company promises kept.

2. Track your key commitments. 

How often do you stop and think before you make a commitment? Despite having the best intentions, it is all too easy to make promises you cannot keep and forget old promises as new ones eclipse time and attention. Tracking can help you stay focused. Simply make a list of your key relationships—people you depend on, people who depend on you. Then, for each relationship, list your critical ongoing commitments and any specific deliverables. Review your list daily and ask yourself: What is needed today to make progress on my most important commitments?

3. Ask for commitment from others. 

Have you ever been mystified by the lack of follow-through after a meeting? It seems as though everyone agrees, but little action is taken. One reason may be that you have not asked for a specific, actionable commitment. Just as with closing a sale, you need to ask others to take concrete actions. One caveat, though: It is critical that you make the commitment a true choice—do not corner people into making false declarations, or you will get even less real ownership.

The most important factor in a company’s success is how well leaders connect the dots between groups to create a simple, coherent, reliable experience for customers, employees, or other stakeholders.

4. Connect the dots between groups. 

Committed leaders tend to focus on delivering what they “own.” Yet often, the most important factor in a company’s success is how well leaders connect the dots between groups to create a simple, coherent, reliable experience for customers, employees, or other stakeholders. As simple as it sounds, you can save time and deliver more value if you do a reality check on how your work fits with your colleagues’ work in the customer’s eyes.

 5. Focus on processes, not heroics.

Committed employees are essential, and a single employee can make an enormous difference to a customer. But too frequently, leaders count on employees’ heroic efforts to deliver quality despite encountering poor processes and roadblocks. Leaders who truly value employees’ contributions treat their people as scarce resources and support them with processes and systems that make it easy to deliver on company promises. Employees’ creativity is thus freed up for the next big idea.

6. Know what commitments you are inheriting in a new role.

When you get a new assignment, your focus is probably on how you can make a difference right away. Yet if you jump into action without knowing what was promised in the past, you may unwittingly violate a prior commitment, undermining trust and increasing the chances of resistance. When you start a new role, ask: “What promises have been made?” Then you can ensure the important commitments are kept—or are changed with respect and consideration.

7. Continually check for contradictions.

Contradictions create distrust. If a company says one thing to one group, and another thing to a different group, people understandably assume the worst. A company can easily end up speaking out of both sides of its mouth if related departments don’t talk. For example, if you respond to a safety violation in one country, do you check for whether to apply the same safety standards in another country? Being trustworthy with your commitments means continually checking for contradictions.

Leaders who truly value employees’ contributions treat their people as scarce resources and support them with processes and systems that make it easy to deliver on company promises.

Reliable promises create value. They engender the confidence that enables customers to buy, employees to engage, shareholders to invest, and the public to trust. When you make fewer, better commitments and remember them over time, you improve your brand as a leader. And when you invest in systems, rewards, and habits that make it easy for your team to keep their commitments and connect the dots with others, you accelerate momentum toward your goals. This is how thriving businesses create an upward spiral of trust and strong results.

Editor’s Note: This is an adapted piece from strategy+business magazine, excerpted by permission of strategy+business. To learn more, check out the article Does Your Company Keep Its Promises? Copyright ©2014 PwC. All rights reserved.
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Copyright: tovovan / 123RF Stock Photo

Elizabeth Doty is the author of The Compromise Trap (Berrett-Koehler, 2009) and a 2013-14 Fellow of the Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. She is the President of Leadership Momentum, which specializes in helping leaders unleash the power of commitment and collaboration in their teams, with customers, and across their organizations. For 25 years, she has supported leaders in over a dozen industries, from startups to Most Admired Companies. Elizabeth earned her MBA from Harvard Business School in 1991.

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