How Good is Your Word? Integrity, Anyone!


I have to admit I am a big believer in words and their meaning, all sorts of meanings in fact, and this has often been to my detriment. In a world based ever-increasingly on communication I think it is time for a word Renaissance, if I can call it that. To be clear, I think people should take more care in using words with their correct meaning(s) and consequently improve their communication skills and the actions that follow.

Undoubtedly this a challenge that has existed for centuries but although illiteracy has been significantly reduced over the course of the 20th century I still don’t see many people doing a very good job of using language.

What brings me to share this particular subject today? Disappointment in the behavior of someone I thought I could trust.

A former close friend who occasionally hired my consultancy services, implored me for help closing a deal with one of her clients in exchange for compensation for my efforts. My role was to be an advisor and nothing more. No reports to produce, no documentation of any kind. Given our friendship, I had often been available to assist this person. Most of that help had to do with her work, but sometimes it was also of a more personal nature, such as rearranging her furniture.

On this particular occasion, since my assistance involved advisory work (which is, after all, how I make a living), I made sure each time we spoke that she was aware I would be billing her for my time. I made an effort to clearly let her know that I would do the work only if I billed her. After all, this contract she was negotiating with her new client would mean a substantial payday for her and it seemed appropriate for me to be compensated for the time I invested in helping her to close the deal. Each time she asked me to work with her, I informed her I would bill her and each time she said “Yes.” So I advised her on the contract type and negotiation with this client.

The first bit of advice I gave her was the price point. I provided this advice free of charge because she was still uncertain whether she wanted the work. She had been working with this client as a consultant for a few months when the International Marketing & Sales Manager left the company. She decided to offer her services in his place but didn’t know how much to charge nor what kind of contract to establish given her pre-existing relationship. I showed her she could find a very nice breakdown of compensation arrangements on, which resulted in her multiplying by four her income in comparison with what she wanted to ask! She took this back to the client who accepted but because of budgetary constraints they agreed she would only work three days a week. Not a bad gig if you can get it: $120,000 a year for 3 days of work a week. Remember, she was going to ask only a quarter of that.

Then, things started to get more serious in the negotiations. The sticking point being how to go from working as a consultant to being an interim manager representing the company to clients around the world. Each time she asked for advice on this subject I reminded her that I would be asking for payment. The first contract came in and she asked me to review it and advise her on what to do. So we met one afternoon at Argo Tea on Broadway, in Manhattan, and discussed the contract for an hour and half. I sent her the bill and she paid me. Great! Thank you.

After a couple of days, she came back to me with a revised contract and asked for the same service: review the contract and advise her on what to do next. I did on the condition of being paid for my time, which she accepted. Unfortunately, when it came time for her to discuss these points with her client’s lawyer she was unable to and asked me to represent her. At this point of the negotiation I didn’t think it would be very efficient for me to talk with the client’s lawyer because we would end up playing something like the game “Telephone” where the message comes out distorted because so many people are modifying it to their understanding. So, I politely informed my friend/client and the lawyer of this view and declined. The next day, a Saturday, my friend/client contacted me to say she and her client would be in my neighborhood, and would I have the time to meet with them in a coffee shop to discuss the contract. Again, I gave my availability on condition I be paid for my time and advice, and she accepted.

The meeting with her client went well. We covered all the major points and in particular agreed that a part-time employment contract for my friend/client’s work was better for everyone. Her client thanked me for taking the time on a Saturday to come and discuss the sticking points with them, everything was much clearer now. The client then went on to compliment me for being so generous with my time and even paying for everyone’s coffee. To which I instantly replied, no thanks were needed as my friend/client was paying me for my time.

Over the next couple of days, I was asked to address a couple of other points, also for a fee, which I did. Afterwards, my client’s client sent us both a term sheet reflecting everything we had discussed and forwarding it to their lawyer to be drafted into a contract. I then sent my client a breakdown of my time, which was not contested, and then raised the invoice. Like the previous invoice, I expected it to be paid right away but it wasn’t.

Although each time I was asked for my advice we agreed it was billable time, and even though I had taken her best interests to heart and not worked directly with the lawyer, and even sent a breakdown of my time before raising the invoice, the amount was beyond her expectation. All told, it came out to $3,000 ($450 had already been paid) for advice on a deal worth $120,000 plus 10% bonus. Do you think my rate was excessive? I don’t.

Long story short, we had a number of exchanges over a number of weeks during which she came to terms with this amount and I received numerous messages saying she was intent on paying me. In the second to last one, she asked for a payment plan. I sent her one for payment over four months, which she refused.

In the face of this strange situation – someone who says she is going to pay me but then doesn’t – I was obliged to take her to small claims court. For three months I heard nothing from her. Then, on the day of the hearing I got the surprise of my life.

Her argument was that all I had done for her was as a friend and, in any case, worthless; anyone could have provided the advice I gave her, she was a nervous Nellie and I was there to hold her hand. Okay, it’s an argument, but in the face of all the words she had previously communicated, it was a total contradiction. Not even an about face; a total negation of an objective reality as written in her previous messages.

As of this writing, we do not have the court’s ruling so I don’t know what the outcome will be. However, I will admit to a certain concern I have about the arbiter’s approach. Notwithstanding all the written documentation I brought as evidence that my client did not contest the amount of the invoice in either hours or rate, and did clearly state at numerous times her intention to pay me, even asking for a payment plan, he still wanted to verify the veracity of the work done and the rate applied. So even this agent of the state apparently did not accept the meaning behind the words used but wanted to test them for himself.

What is the lesson here? People use words but ultimately these words are devoid of any true meaning. No actions follow to support what was previously stated. Except for me; I am stupid enough to live my life based on the expectation that words have meaning and we prove that everyday through our actions. You know, “walk the talk”, or “talk the walk”, or “walk the walk”(I never know how the expression goes). Or “Say what you do, do what you say.” Basically, a person is only as good as their word. You get my meaning. You do, don’t you?

Over the span of my life, I have to say I have encountered this kind of behavior on numerous occasions. It always left me with a ….well, angry. I am angry with those with whom we created a shared expectation. I am angry with myself for being gullible enough to actually believe the sh-t that comes out of people’s mouths or that they write down or communicate in some other way. I am disappointed in people’s behavior. I am disappointed because I feel taken advantage of. I live up to my end of the deal but they don’t. This kind of behavior brings on a whole bucket full of bad emotions and sometimes even worse thoughts. Nothing good comes of it. A friendship broken. A working relationship broken. A family broken. Relationships thrown onto the rubbish heap.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not perfect. Sure, I falter too. However, I learned a long time ago that relationships are more important than anything else; you shouldn’t burn down the bridges that connect you and your community, rebuilding them is very costly. As anyone who knows me well will attest, I actually tend to go above and beyond to make sure I live up to my word. Words are sacred to me. My word is important to me. It is all I have in this life. I don’t speak much but when I do, I want what I say to be meaningful, to hold true. When I was a chief executive in companies, it used to confuse and amuse me how when I started to open my mouth everyone would shut up and listen. I know I am only as good as my word.

As a mentor, coach, consultant, I teach my clients the importance of their word from day one. If you can’t commit to one hour a week, at the same time every week, for three consecutive weeks, I will not work with you. If you contact me an hour before a session to cancel, I will drop you. Unless force majeur doesn’t allow you to be present you had better live up to your word by following through with the appropriate action. My reasoning for being so demanding on this point is quite simple: if you do not live up to word when it’s for your own benefit then how can you possibly lead a business when your word is for the benefit of others–clients, suppliers, employees, partners, shareholders, bankers, and all the other stakeholders in your community? If your words have no meaning then everyone is in a constant state of uncertainty including you.

Just think of all situations in which you communicate through words a given intention or you receive the intention of another and you will see how important it is to be a person/company of your word in order to create value for your clients/community. To my way of thinking, every time we communicate we are creating the expectation of a certain action and consequence in our world. Yes, we have to manage that expectation so it isn’t over the top. But most importantly we have to live up to that expectation in order to be a positive force in the world.

I’m going to leave you with this last thought: If you agree with the above, would you keep on an employee who has no word?