I’ve often used the cliché, “Trust is earned a penny at a time, and spent in dollar bills” when I speak to grad students and emerging leader groups. And I’ve known it to be true in my own life. But a recent experience reinforced its truth once again to me, and I’m going to share that story with you. Not because I’m proud of what occurred. Far from it. This incident is one I wish hadn’t happened, because of the impact that it had on a very significant and long-term client relationship. But one of my goals with this blog is to share experiences I have had so I will learn and grow from the process, and so others will gain valuable insight alongside me.
A few months ago, I was working on a project with a client. This particular client is a group of physicians with whom I have been privileged to work for nearly a decade. Our relationship dynamic is one that is filled with significant trust and mutual respect. We have lived through an inordinate amount of dysfunction and some very unique and harrowing events. So, when I felt that a decision that we were leaning toward as a group was not the right one, I took the latitude to go a different direction. Let me clarify. This was not an operational decision. It was also not one of significant financial or organizational impact. But it was absolutely one of intentionally seeking out an alternate choice than had been previously discussed. When I made this decision, I believed it (and still do) to be in the best interests of the group. I also knew, without a doubt, that my making this decision was going to cause a rift with at least one of the physicians. Taking that into consideration, I still moved forward with the decision, notified the (external) parties involved, finalized arrangements and then notified my clients of my actions. As predicted, one of my clients was very upset. Several events that transpired are key examples of the aforementioned principle (trust is earned a penny at a time and spent in dollar bills), and also key learning points that are reinforced for future reference. I hope they will also be helpful to you.
1. Always be honest. Never (attempt to) cover your tracks. The truth will always come out. After my originally notifying the three client owners of my decision and actions, there was an e-mail exchange about the series of events that had transpired. Several direct questions were posed about the actions I had taken and how I had handled certain conversations. I answered them honestly–a very good thing–because at least one of those messages was forwarded to other parties as part of continued dialogue and cross-verification of what had transpired. Had I not been honest, this challenging circumstance would have almost certainly been relationship-ending. The temptation to be dishonest, especially if it lessens the “heat” on you, is not a wise choice. Unfortunately I have made that mistake once or twice. It’s no fun.
2. If and when an apology is due, do it right. Following a brief e-mail exchange in the hours following the original notification to my client, it was very clear that one individual was incredibly upset with me. By this time, it was already evening, and because of the history of our relationship, my knowledge of their personality and communication style, and the amount of respect I have for this individual, I knew it would be best for me to apologize in person. An e-mail apology, sent in the late hours of the evening, would have (in my opinion) been a cowardly and less effective approach. So the next day I visited the office in person when I knew the individual would be available. When they saw me approaching, it was clear this client did not want to see, much less chat with me. I asked for a moment in private and apologized to this person, eye-to-eye. This was not easy and even now as I type this, several months later, my hands are trembling a bit. But I knew that I needed to (a.) display my respect for this individual by looking them in the eye, (b.) take accountability for my actions and communicate the reasons for my actions and (c.) apologize for what I had done; not only because it was without prior approval of the client owners, but more so because I needed to let them know that I realized my actions had compromised their trust in me; it was my intent to work diligently to regain that trust and restore our relationship.
3. Humility is an essential and non-negotiable component to leadership. Everyone makes mistakes. We will all fail. It does not stop at some magical stage when we become more experienced. Instead, if we are progressively challenging ourselves as leaders and seeking opportunities to advance and grow, the likelihood that we will experience circumstances that will challenge or overwhelm us will only increase … perhaps exponentially. If you maintain humility in your approach to consistently equipping yourself with the knowledge and resources to grow and improve, and also acknowledge when you have fallen short, your propensity to succeed will increase, as will the respect others have for you.