Making and keeping commitments

Are you damaging your credibility through too many unfulfilled commitments? Are you a serial over-committer? In an edited extract from his book, Management Mess to Leadership Success: 30 Challenges to Become the Leader You Would Follow, Scott Miller explores how to effectively make and keep commitments

It turns out, making commitments is easy for me. At the time of this writing, I’ve committed to:

  • Host a weekly radio show.
  • Simultaneously author or co-author three books.
  • Write a weekly blog post.
  • Author a weekly magazine column.
  • Host a weekly web interview.
  • Tape a daily leadership insight for radio and social media.
  • Teach a class at my church.
  • Lead a fundraising initiative.
  • Serve on a marketing committee.
  • Provide career coaching to four or five people at any given time.
  • Get to the gym and workout.
  • Raise three boys – and
  • Stay married, given all the above…

…and a bevy of other, no less significant items. Your list will be unique to your role and life, but I bet it comes in at a similar length. The problem in this challenge is about making and keeping commitments. Now I have to deliver on everything – and so do you! – and here’s my candid admission: I will drop the ball on at least one of these. I’m perpetually overcommitted and can’t possibly deliver on everything at the level of excellence I want. How about you?

Many of the challenges in this book reflect the tension between what I thought an effective leader was early in my career, and what the reality turned out to be – and, for some reason, this particular challenge is one I keep having to relive because I’m not quite figuring it out.

A peer once told me, “Scott, under-promise and over-deliver.” At the time, I discounted what this colleague had told me because I thought it betrayed something other than a ‘do whatever it takes’ work ethic – in retrospect, it didn’t – but I remember the spirit of her counsel. Don’t take on too much, Scott, and perpetuate your brand of delivering on some projects and not on others; simply do what you say you’re going to do and do it with extraordinary impact. I have a habit of ascribing too much value to activity and not enough to discerning what should be done with the highest quality. Not that my work is sloppy; on the contrary, I would maintain that my deliverables are exceptional – but only the ones I actually deliver on. And now even that might be at risk.

I actually don’t have a problem saying ‘No’ – I say ‘No’ all day long – but I love ‘Yes’ more, particularly with projects that allow me to think big in terms of vision, impact and uniqueness. Plus, the little voice in the back of my head argues that, even if I disappoint 15% of the people by not delivering, the remaining 85% will think I’m a rock star.

Contrast this with Stephen M. R. Covey, one of the leading global authorities on trust. Stephen is in demand; his famed book, The Speed of Trust, has sold over two million copies. While he’s keynoting multiple times weekly – and it’s not unusual for him to be in four countries in four days – he’s also very cautious about making commitments. Unlike me, he means everything he says. When he says ‘No’, he means it; and when he says ‘Yes’, he means it. He starts and finishes. If I’m eight for 10, Stephen’s eight for eight!

Recently, I approached Stephen about increasing his global profile and suggested we meet to brainstorm how to have him accelerate his authorship for some major business publications. He initially said, ‘No, thank you’. With courtesy and respect, which is his style, he explained that his low profile as a columnist or contributor wasn’t from a lack of opportunity – he’d been approached by numerous publications about writing columns or articles and had declined most of them. He was simply unwilling to place himself in a situation where he might disappoint someone by missing a deadline or not delivering.

If you’ve seen Stephen speak at a conference, you know one of his hallmarks – beyond his indisputable credibility – is his thoughtful preparation. He is maniacal about researching a client and customising his content to their cultural and market issues and listening to their needs to ensure his time with them is impactful. In fact, he declines nearly as many speaking opportunities as he accepts, as further engagements might reduce his prep time for those already committed to. He leaves money on the table daily to ensure those he’s already agreed to work with receive his best. It’s rare to see companies or individuals say ‘No’ to business if it comes at the expense of delivering their best to previous commitments. How many of us have done the opposite and said ‘Yes’, compromising not only our current commitments, but also the ones we just took on?

To quote Roger Merrill, Dr Covey’s co-author on the book First Things First: “When you make a commitment, you build hope; when you keep it, you build trust.” Everyone’s bandwidth is different in terms of their capacity to take on and execute their commitments with excellence.

If you find yourself in the mess of overcommitting and underdelivering, consider exercising uncharacteristic restraint the next time you’re approached by a colleague, friend or family member. They may be unwittingly attempting to move you past your breaking point. Our capacity to do is always more than our capacity to do with excellence.

No reasonable person can resist a response like, “I truly would love to be a part of that, but I’m so cognisant of not wanting to disappoint you and others I’ve already committed to that I’ll have to decline. If something changes with my current level of commitments I’ll surely reach out to you. Thank you so much for your trust in me.”

If this is hard to do in the moment, keep in mind a short-hand version: “Let me get back to you on that.” This simple phrase gives you space between the request and the response – time to consider your commitments and availability. If you have to come back and decline, crafting a nicely-worded response can be seen as even more thoughtful than if you had dismissed the request out-of-hand from the beginning.

I love yes. But I need to love no much more. Remember, eight for eight is way better than eight for 10. The difference is in the second number in the ratio, not the first (and that’s the whole point).


Management Mess to Leadership Success: 30 Challenges to Become the Leader You Would Follow is available to purchase here.

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