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Keeping your promises as a company (and a leader) should be hard

I wish I could have written the opposite, you know?

“Keeping your promises as a company (or a leader) should be easy. As easy as it was to make them in the first place and then publish them on a website page under a big bold ‘Here are our amazing core values!’ heading. And if it’s not, you’re doing it wrong.”

Ha! If only that were true.

It certainly wasn’t true last Friday, when I literally said out loud to our leadership team:

“We always say if it’s bullshit, we’re not doing it, so I’m going to say it. I think this right here is bullshit, and we shouldn’t do it.”

It doesn’t matter what we were talking about when I said that. What does matter is no one’s feelings were hurt. We all do some version of that to each other, at least once a day:

“Keep me honest, am I looking at this clearly?”

“Don’t hold back, is this bullshit?”

“Look, I think we need to all reflect on how we got here.”

“I see where you’re coming from, and I also think that’s the easy way out.”

We’re always proactively checking in with each other to see if we (as a group or whole-ass individual humans in our own right) are acting in a way that is in line with who we told everyone we are and promised to always be. Because you can’t say you’re an ethos-driven company without accountability.

I’m sharing this with all of you because, almost 10 months ago, we published a piece about who we promised to always be.

And a lot of those promises we made still hold true

For instance:

“We promise never to grow for the sake of ‘growing.’”

This is still absolutely true.

But my personal relationship with the word “growth” has changed significantly over the past few years. For so, so long, “growth” was a dirty word in my book. A synonym for everything that was the root cause for the most toxic work environments I had ever experienced.

What we’re building here – along with the beautiful, passionate, ridiculously talented tribe of like-minded people I am lucky enough to work with – has shown me otherwise.

“We promise to make our relationships count.”

“We promise a 100% focus on clients and their results.”

Yup. We are a service-based organization, and we mean that literally. We are here to serve our companies. We will not abide by anyone who leans into the “us vs. them” mentality, which is a cancerous trend you’ll find running rampant at many agencies, typically the result of burnout or stress-based coping mechanisms

We believe in “us for them” always, and that is a commitment we have made.

So, if one of us is having a bad day – or worse, a bad attitude – that is not something we will ever let our companies pay for, whenever they interact with us. Our relationships with you, our companies, are too important for that.

“We promise to give you what you bought.”

Yes!

To be fair, we shouldn’t have had to say this out loud back then, and we shouldn’t have to now, but here we are.

Too many companies are stuck in agency relationships where communication is shit, critical work takes too long to get done, you don’t have enough access to the high-level experts you need, and you’re nickel-and-dimed within an inch of your life every time you need to make a change.

But, during the sales process, you were promised it would never be that way, right? Of course you were. Now if you’ll just sign here, here and here …

(So yeah, that’s still very much a true promise.)

“We promise actual balance.”

You bet your ass this is still a promise we keep. When we say we believe in no bureaucracy and no bullshit, we mean that for our companies and our people.

We refuse to create a company culture where being constantly over capacity, having panic attacks, pulling all-nighters and embracing “hustle culture” are what you need to accept in order to succeed. To guarantee this, we don’t sell more than 30 hours worth of billable work per week for anyone on our team.

Do we pay our people above market rate and expect them to provide a service that exceeds the expectations of our companies? Yes, we do. But not at the expense of themselves, their values, their personal lives or their health. If our companies (or our bottom line) are winning, but our people are suffering as a result, we have built the thing we swore we’d never be.

“We promise to always be objective.”

Of course.

“We promise to hear you when we fuck up.”

That 100% has not changed.

* * *

… OK, I could go through each and every one of those promises we made 10 months ago, but I think you get my point. We’ve made a lot of promises and they are, in virtually every way, still true.

But what it means today to keep a promise is different

When you’re at the beginning of building a company from the ground up, you’re freaking excited. And you should be. Maybe you’re also shitting your pants a little bit, but whatever. Actively creating something from nothing is exhilarating, especially when it’s something that started as a “I’m crazy, I can’t do this” idea in your brain. 

But then you start putting together, piece by piece, whatever this thing in front of you is – and it’s such a rush because you know you’re building something that is going to be different.

As you do that, you start attracting other people who say:

“Yes! I also want to build this different thing with you! I see what you see, and you’re not crazy – well, you might be, but you’re not crazy about this thing. So, let’s do it!”

There are no words to describe how incredible feels when you find those people – your people.

This state doesn’t last forever, of course. It can’t.

Even if you’re still in the process of “becoming,” you will, at some point, cross a threshold where you’ve actually built enough of the thing that you now need to start maintaining it. You need to guard it with your life, so you don’t accidentally create something you don’t recognize, or whatever it is you said you’d never be.

You can no longer only say who you are; you also have to prove it.

For instance, you need to prove that you weren’t totally full of crap when you painted “No bureaucracy, no bullshit” on a wall in your office and then printed it on the back of a sweatshirt.

(And by “you,” I mean “me.” Oops.)

In the early days, living that phrase felt great

In the beginning, I could feel all of these pent up, overwhelming emotions about where I had come from bursting forward from the center of my chest, as I was finally creating the place I knew could exist:

  • Where people who are driven by a true desire to help and serve can do so.

  • Where people who are masters of their craft (or have the potential to become one) are given the space and the tools and the systems they need to flourish.

  • Where our employees and our companies always walk away from every interaction feeling confident there was an equal exchange of value.

That’s what “No bureaucracy, no bullshit” is really all about.

As bold and crass of a middle finger as that statement may seem to some of you, what it was then (and still is, to this day) isn’t a middle finger at all. It’s the most important promise we have made to everyone who works for and with us.

In the beginning, it was so fulfilling and joyful. We were in the business of declaring what our promise was and explaining the “why” behind it – and then watching the right people get excited about it.

Today, it’s still completely fulfilling and joyful – again, for the right people.

However, there is also a huge, Grand Canyon-sized difference between being in the business of communicating what your promises are as a rallying cry at the start and actually keeping them.

We are no longer in that state of only “becoming.”

This collective, this organization, this company … it’s no longer that hazy vision of “what’s possible” I had three years ago in Michigan, while sitting on a desk, wearing slippers and staring out a window watching the snow fall.

It has walls and tables and desks and people and companies that depend on us to keep the promise that brought them to our doorstep in the first place.

Now, before I go further, this is one thing I need to be very clear about.

I am not about to tell you I have made the wild discovery that, oh man, did you know you can’t just make promises … you also have to keep them?

We’re all adults who (hopefully) learned this as children: If we keep making promises we never actually keep, at some point, we’re no longer making promises. At some point, people figure out we’re liars.

Instead, what’s become abundantly clear to me over the past three years – this last one, in particular – is what it really takes to be an ethos-driven company that has character and keeps its word (internally and externally).

And what “it really takes” is really fucking hard.

More importantly, if it’s not hard, you have a problem

Over the past two weeks, we’ve had more than a few conversations and internal debates about the idea of core values, as well as what it means to be a company that has an ethos and is known for keeping its promises. (This happened organically, we didn’t set out to do this.)

As it turns out, there was one thing we all could agree on:

Core values are, more often than not, bullshit.

That’s not to say we don’t have some form of them ourselves, manifesting through our actions as natural outcomes of who we are.

We also recognize core values can be thoughtful, truthful, moving expressions of a shared belief system, for a meaningful percentage of the companies that have them.

We’re going to dig into this more deeply in the very near future, but for now, the problem I want to point to is this:

  • Core values are often packaged as promises made, promises kept. Realistic expectations of what a company presently stands for and, in some cases, what working with them will be like.

  • In reality, core values are often aspirational ideals of what should be or could be, but isn’t. Or they are true when it’s easy, and they’re abandoned the moment shit gets a little too real.

For example, when a tough conversation you need to have with someone is so uncomfortable to think about, you might lean into the idea of creating a “self-discovery” moment instead.

In this scenario, they come to the conclusion you already know seemingly all on their own, but you get to pat yourself on the back for “facilitating growth” through your clarifying (see: “leading”) questions.

Don’t get me wrong, the ability to create purposeful “a ha!” moments of self-discovery is a critical skill you must have if you want to pass the sniff test as a leader or a coach. But if you’re using the cloak of “self-discovery” as a Trojan Horse to trick the other person into making a tough decision you’ve already made for you – and are too much of a coward to say out loud – that’s bullshit.

Moreover, if you have any form of acting with integrity, failing fast, accountability, responsibility, radical candor or ownership in your core values, your failure to do the hard (but right) thing in those instances is you making the choice to break your promise. 

Again, this is so hard to do, but we have to do it

You must be willing to evaluate and re-evaluate where you are right now, at this moment, and the decisions you’ve made that brought you here. You have to be willing to call out bullshit when you see it, and you have to be willing to call bullshit on yourself. You have to be willing to own when you break your promises, or when you act or lead in a way that flies in the face of what you say you stand for.

Sometimes you’ll feel yourself doing it in the moment. 

Other times, even with the best intentions, you won’t realize you’ve made the wrong move until after it’s “too late.” Even then, you have to act. 

When we make promises (as individual leaders and as companies), we need to remember those we serve don’t expect us break their trust when it’s easy. But they’ll watch us like a hawk to see if we keep those promises when it’s hard.

That’s when they’ll learn who we really are.

There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of moments (big and small) over the past three years that have put all of us here at BS+Co. to the test. Like, when we make promises like “no bureaucracy, no bullshit,” do we keep them?

I certainly haven’t been perfect in every instance; none of us have.

But what I can say is, in our earnest and honest pursuit to fulfill our promises and achieve our unattainable standard, we have learned the following:

  • “No bureaucracy” doesn’t mean we don’t honor social contracts rooted in the fundamentals of what it means to be a good human who acts with morality, integrity and respect for others.

  • “No bullshit” doesn’t mean we act like brazen assholes when we disagree or are presented with something we think we don’t like.

  • While our vision of what we’re building and why is crystal clear, that doesn’t mean we aren’t open-minded to new ideas that challenge “cemented” beliefs, or unwilling to admit we are wrong about something.

This is something we’re fiercely proud of.

We’re especially proud that we almost always make these discoveries together, instead through top-down mandates from leadership. Everyone here is fully committed to creating moments of growth for themselves and each other, and we could not be more proud of that.

But this kind of “self-work” is challenging and can be painful. And we are definitely not perfect.

“Wow, I couldn’t have been more wrong if I had tried.”

“I guess we all kind of screwed the pooch on this one.”

“I’m going to need to sit with this mistake for a while.”

“OK, lesson learned! Now, we’re going to rebrand this ‘fuck up’ as a ‘growth opportunity.’ We’re marketers, it’s our prerogative.”

In the next 24 hours, I can guarantee you one of us (likely me) will say one of those things. We are going to point at something and remind ourselves of who we said we are and would always be.

But these experiences are critical reminders that you only get to “brag” about who you are (and what you stand for) if you’ve been tested. If you’ve proven in your own public square that you make the right choices; or, if you’ve made the wrong ones, you’re willing to hold yourself accountable instead of hoping no one notices or calls you out. 

In fact, I’m willing to bet that virtually all of you reading this right now have a problem in front of you or a tough choice you need to make. I know I do. Maybe it’s one that just fell in your lap, or it could be something you’ve shoved off to the side because you’re not ready to face it … and/or you were hoping it would go away on its own. (No shame in that, we’ve all been there.)

Whatever that thing is, hear me when I say this:

Stop aspiring to be the great leader or company you promised to be, and just … start being. Every time you feel the pain of a hard decision, or realize the easy path and the right path are (annoyingly) not the same thing, you’re being given the chance to write (and rewrite) your story. You have a chance to do better and be better.

You won’t always get it right; but neither will I or anyone else here. None of us will. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying.