What do you get paid to do? Don’t be too quick to answer this question. Most everyone I ask this question of answers by describing some function that they carry out in their organization.
You may have initially answered by saying that you develop strategy, make decisions, plan, set direction, sell, work in fundraising, do financial analysis and reporting, research, solve customer issues, coordinate events, or manage others to get the work done.
Yes, you do get paid for doing those things, but take it a step further – what is at the core of all of these things you do? Fundamentally, what is it that your organization is paying you for? The answer is usually surprising at first yet obvious once you think about it.
Consider that what you get paid for by your organization is to make and fulfill promises that add value to the organization’s bottom line and/or mission. The organization hired you to help it reach its goals and objectives. The organization is paying you to make and keep the promises it needs fulfilling in order to achieve its vision, mission and commitments to all of its stakeholders.
Notice the word ‘promise’ here. You aren’t being paid for trying (unless you are purely an R&D function). You aren’t being paid for working hard. You aren’t being paid for your best intentions.
If you can’t promise results – if you can’t make and keep your promises – then why would an organization pay you? (There’s actually some science to earning potential, after all.)
The organization employs you and others to help them fulfill on those promises. Ideally, the actions and results you produce combined with the actions and results of the others in the organization produce a certain result that the organization has promised to its customers, shareholders, partners, vendors, etc.
Within the boundaries of your organization, you have lots of conversations to clarify what your various stakeholders want from you, to address problems and delays, to ask for help, to brainstorm – all with the specific goal of meeting the commitments (or promises) you’ve made to your team, your peers, your bosses, the organization. Each person’s role within the organization is determined by the commitments/promises he or she makes to and with others.
What are you actually getting paid for?
Of course it’s more complex and in-depth than what I have the space and time to put in this short blog but this framework to view organizational life is a very powerful one to consider. The most fundamental building blocks of your effectiveness within your organization are your promises. Want to succeed and excel in your career? Learn to manage your promises more effectively. Want to see your team, department or organization prosper? Learn to manage your promises more effectively. Want to hold your employees and team members accountable for their work? Get them to identify and make specific promises to you as their manager/leader and then teach them how to keep those promises or manage expectations when the promises can’t or won’t be fulfilled on time.
What do I mean by a promise? As an example, let’s say you are the leader of a marketing team charged with developing a social media campaign for a new product. You may make a promise to the CFO not to spend more than $50,000 and another one to the VP of Sales that you will roll out the campaign by the end of the month so they can speak to it in their sales calls. You may make another promise to the Senior Leadership Team that this effort will lead to at least 500 new product inquiries a month.
A bad example of a promise – which may sound very familiar – is the one you promise your boss that will ‘improve communications’ between your team and the staff at Headquarters. This isn’t a promise. You can’t measure it. People have different interpretations and standards for it. It’s murky, muddy and yet this is where most organizations run into a lot of trouble and create waste, inefficiencies and employee resentment. Remember: what’s measured is often what matters, especially to senior leaders.
Granted, the word ‘promise’ can be a little off-putting for some. I prefer it to the word commitment but I know that many organizations use commitment instead. What I like about the word promise is that it holds your proverbial feet to the fire. No one wants to break a promise. Your organization has made promises for results to all its stakeholders. The organization doesn’t say to the stakeholders ‘well this result you want isn’t really a promise from us, but we will try really hard and hope it turns out.’
While there are many elements to a powerful promise, I offer three essential ones here. This is where I spend a lot of my time as an executive coach – getting teams and individual contributors to better articulate and fulfill on their promises.
Clear conditions of satisfaction
Simply put, a promise is a commitment to take a certain action and/or produce a specific result by a certain timeframe to agreed-upon standards. Clarifying exactly what you are promising (and by when) is one of your most difficult yet essential tasks. This requires good conversations with your boss, teammates and others. Being ‘concrete and specific’ is probably the most difficult piece of articulating a clear promise but you can easily see that if you don’t clarify them, others will have expectations of you that you may or may not share.
The person(s) to whom the promise is being made
A promise is always made to somebody (and often to more than one person). That person gets to say if they are satisfied or not. The #1 reason why most teams or individual contributors will fail is not because they don’t work hard or mean well, it’s because they are not clear about what will satisfy those whom they are making their promise of results to. Be sure you know who all your customers for your promises are. I’m using the word customer here to mean those who are internal to the organization who get to say they are either satisfied or not satisfied with your work and results. Do you really know what will satisfy them?
If you make a promise then you need to own it. This means that you don’t get to blame circumstances or people when things don’t turn out as you planned.
Of course you’re going to make promises that will need to be renegotiated. Of course priorities change and you’ll need to rescind a promise. Of course some ideas won’t work and you’ll need to go back to the drawing board. These are all possibilities when you make a promise. You don’t need to wait to make a promise until all obstacles have been removed from your path or the chances of fulfilling it are at 100%. If you waited or required certainty before acting then nothing would ever get done in your organization. Owning the promise doesn’t guarantee results but it does mean you commit to doing all that you can, including and most importantly communicating with your customers and stakeholders along the way and not waiting until your promise doesn’t turn out to let them know.
While there’s a lot more to say about how to make and manage promises, hopefully you get the importance and relevance for your own and your team’s success. If you are serious about getting better at managing promises, then your first step is to identify every promise you have made to all of your ‘customers’ in the organization. Are they clear and measurable? Are the measures for success shared by you and the customer? If there are any dangling or unclear promises, then have the needed conversations to get them clarified – this isn’t easy but it’s definitely worth your time.