I received something in the mail a few days ago that troubles me. Not email, it was in my mailbox, something that gets little more than junk mail these days. This was a promotional piece for a non-profit organization I am connected to indirectly.
Inside the mailing were copies of pieces handed out as part of the annual fundraising event this organization sponsors. The event is a largish one which significantly bolsters the organization’s coffers. The items were well designed and professionally printed on glossy paper.
The mailing included two pieces. The most colorful is a brochure which describes the organization’s work. The second is the program brochure with an insert on which are listed the evening’s sponsors, those companies and individuals who have paid for an entire table.
The problem for me is on the right hand page of the program, the page which is most readily seen and consequently read. It lists the organization’s “accomplishments” for the month of January, 2014, accomplishments which I know to be a gross exaggeration if not outright wishful thinking.
There’s more spin on the list than on a Randy Johnson slider. At the top of the page it indicates that what follows will be a list of what they themselves have done. Way down at the bottom of the page, after one reads of the mighty wonders of the organization’s work in just one month, there is the caveat “All this is done through (the organization) and our PARTNERS.
Therein lies the kicker. How much did this organization do and how much did the partners do? What does “partner” really mean? Does it mean a person, company, or organization with which this organization has an organic connection or does it mean someone they know and with whom they are friends? I’ve actually seen organizations do this. They join networks and then claim that the work done by others in the network is done by their partners when the partnership is not a partnership at all. It is an association. The word partnership at the very least implies a somewhat formal agreement. I am confident that the partnerships implied in the paper in question are not formal in any way.
In the need to appear significant and successful it is really, really easy to push the numbers and inflate the size of one’s accomplishments. But numbers never tell the whole story. Never. Often, they obscure the facts and have been spun to impress.
If you have to spin it you shouldn’t be in it. Vision is critical and a vibrant one even more so. Celebration of successes along the way is necessary and obviously motivational. But the problem is spin. I wrote about spin here so you can read what I had to say about it then. Here’s how to stand out. Don’t spin. When President Kennedy was once asked in a press conference what he and his administration were doing to promote women’s rights he responded, “Not nearly enough.” No spin, just an admission of the facts.
Never, ever play on the assumptions of your associates, followers, constituents, or customers. Beware the implications of what you say, publish, and/or promote. The implication is that this organization did everything with a little help from friends. Most of those who read this will assume that the organization was the major player in those mighty works when they were not. The effect is to make the organization seem more successful and more effective than it really is.
If you’re gonna put on a big hat someone’s gonna find out if you have any cattle. Someone’s going find out that you really have not done those things and they will discover that your “partnerships” really aren’t. Hype will succeed in the short term but pays really bitter dividends for two reasons.
First, it does something to you as the leader. It begins to promote illusion and encourage delusions of importance that are not matched by reality. This, in a primitive sense, is insanity. Worse, it compromises your integrity because it clouds scrupulous honesty in the expedience of promotion and gain. It appears that the ends (more money, bigger market share, increased margins or whatever) validate the less than forthright means you’ve used to get them. While the truth is not actually broken it is badly bent and misshapen. The millennia old method of building business based on a great product or service produced at a fair price by a company whose integrity is without question really does work. When I received the aforementioned package in the mail and read the page I’ve focused on here what was my first response? It was not acceptance without doubt. My first response was to question the validity of the numbers and the scope of the work. This is NOT what you want to provoke in donors, customers, associates, employees, board members, friends and neighbors.
Second, it misleads good and trusting people whose retribution will be swift and certain once the truth is out there. You cannot build trust by using untrustworthy methods. The organization referred to herein is not an insignificant one. They are successful in their own right and do not have to resort to such tactics. But I also know that grant money has dried up for them and the prospects for more being released anytime soon look poor. I also know that they have had some issues meeting payroll so the need for money is critical. But margin and capital are always an issue and there are right ways to get it, there are wrongs ways to get it, and there is the gray area in-between that gives way to somewhat questionable tactics.
You can be a stand up person in a stoop to anything world. If you must rationalize to explain anything, you have just engaged in the telling of rational sounding lies. There should be asterisks by most of the numbers listed on that program that refer to a qualifier. Yes, by association the organization did somehow someway “partner” with those other organizations to do all those things…but not really. The asterisk is there even if it wasn’t printed. Do you really want that for your company? For yourself? I didn’t think so.
In a guest post called “Don’t spin a better story. Be a better company.” for the Harvard Business Review in October, 2013, Leslie Dach wrote that “My role was to find the places where being better would make the biggest difference and to create a culture that would enable us to get those things done.”
What is Leslie Dach saying? Be what you claim to be. Let me say again what I’ve said before.
Effective leaders are those persons who live with their lives what they say with their mouth you are or ought to be.