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Virtues of Government Service- Number 7: Credibility

What is Credibility and Who Cares?

What’s the importance of credibility these days? Does credibility even matter? That’s a no-brainer, right? Everyone knows – almost from birth –  how important it is to be honest, trustworthy – in a word, credible. Yet all around us, we see evidence that would tend to indicate that credibility really doesn’t matter much. Might makes right. Damn the data. Full speed ahead!

Merriam-Webster defines “credibility” very simply as the: “quality or power of inspiring belief.” Six small words that contain an infinite amount of insight and importance but also, a dose of mystery. Leaders must inspire belief.

What is belief and how do you measure how much inspiration is required to achieve it? And in our data-driven world, where’s the evidence to support the inference that when it comes to success, we need credible leadership? Where do we get the data to support an assertion that we must somehow measure up to a credibility test? Well, even Albert Einstein, who knew a thing or two about the importance of calculating measurements, said: “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.

A Google executive recently described their definition, if not calibration, of leadership as “the ability to inspire people and influence outcomes.” Credibility is essential to both objectives. In fact, Kouzes and Posner, in their authoritative book, “The Leadership Challenge” say (Page 40) “Credibility is the foundation of leadership.” So, it’s pretty clear and on good authority that we strive for credibility. What happens when we fail that test?

A True Story About Credit Cards, Creeps and Credibility

Just a few weeks ago, I was attracted to an add I saw from a well-established, even admired, credit card company. I’ll call them “Company A.” Company A was advertising a low-interest rate and points or miles on all my purchases. I thought of Company A as one of the founding companies in the credit card industry and –swayed by the company’s compelling “click-bait” boasting a 30-second response and decision based on my online application – I applied. Intrigued and inspired by their promises of a fast decision and minimal “paperwork,” I provided the requested information and hit the “send” button. Sure enough, within 30 seconds I got a reply. Based on the data I had provided, they would require further information including some notarized documents to be obtained from an official at my primary bank. I would receive a final determination approximately two-weeks after they received the requested documentation.

So much for the promised “30-second” decision. More like 30 days. Now I was really inspired (and highly inflamed)! I decided to pursue the matter and not just tuck my tail between my legs and go ignominiously away, as per my usual behavior. I picked up the phone. After running the interminable computer “help” gauntlet, I got a real, live person. Hallelujah! Surely, she would see the problem and the injustice and my new credit card soon would be winging its way to me with alacrity and aplomb.

Wrong! Here’s what happened next.

I calmly explained the situation to my ever-so-polite and condescending Company A service representative.  She promptly replied, “That’s right. We need additional information.” I asked her about the 30-second promise. She countered with, “Well, we gave you a decision within 30 seconds. Our decision was that we needed additional information.” She had me. Nailed! How clever of them! How lawyerly. Doink! Bad on me!  Humbled and humiliated, I hung up the phone and hung my head. Well, can’t fight city hall!

So, I gave them 30 seconds of my despondency. Then I went back to the task. I went to the Company A’s primary competitor – call them Company B. Company B (surprise, surprise) had a similar offer. I went through their application process and hit “Send”. A minute or two later I had an email in my inbox saying, “Congratulations. You should receive your new Credit Card at the address provided within three days.” And guess what. They delivered the card and delivered on their promises. Yea. Score one for the little guy – me!

But, really, what “victory” did I score? I didn’t prove anything to Company A. I didn’t teach them a lesson.  They don’t need my business. Keep reading.

Follow the Data, Not the Drama  

The rate of small business failure is alarming. The rate of large business failure is increasing at a very alarming clip. The technical term for this is disruptive innovation. This is when the big bully on the block gets knocked over and out by a new, little guy.  The classic David and Goliath story. And, with 21st Century technology to credit or blame, this is a major threat to even the most “secure” large companies. Even government organizations must be aware that they too can be wiped out by super-efficient new organizations capable of providing better services at prices people will happily pay. What’s the antidote? To paraphrase Brian Koslow, “The more you are willing to accept responsibility for your actions and results, the more credibility you will have.” In return for your credibility, you’ll get more business, more success and probably a better night’s sleep.

What’s the Value of Credibility?

Some would argue that success is the best indicator one should use to measure credibility. And, certainly, past performance is an indicator that can be used. One of the best salesmen I’ve ever known said this to me as I was transitioning from the Air Force into commercial business.

“Credibility is the only currency in town.”

These words were proved true to me from my own experience. As a new Business Development executive, I was responsible for “winning” a certain volume of new business and money was the yardstick I was measured against. In my first few years, I followed my Marine mentor’s advice and did reasonably well. Then I moved to a bigger company with bigger goals and more competition. Now I was selling against real professionals who had, what seemed to me, the “gift of the gab.”

They were smart, glib, slick and I felt like the kid who’d fallen off the turnip truck next to them. What could I do? I studied. But, what did I study? I studied (and even memorized) the shiny marketing materials. So how did I do? I had great intentions. I worked hard. But, in the ultimate test, I failed. Almost. I was saved from myself through the heroics of my Engineering Team and a CEO who understood the value of ethics and credibility. So, what had happened?

I had read and believed my marketing materials. I believed the hype and hyperbole. And I repeated it to people – including the chief information officer (CIO) of a Fortune 5 company. But, when they put my claims to the test, the promised performance didn’t stack up. It was horrible. I felt horrible. I had lost the sale and several million dollars’ worth of business for my company. And, worse, I’d lost my credibility. Luckily, my CEO listened when I explained the situation. He personally visited the Fortune 5 CIO. He put a team of engineers at the prospect’s location for two-weeks until we met the promised performance criteria. The sale was saved and we ended up having a great business relationship. So, what’s the lesson?

Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Double check the facts. Triple check if there’s a lot at stake – like your personal credibility and your organization’s reputation. And, keep in mind the advice of my Marine Force Recon mentor who said, “Credibility is the only currency in town.”  Even in Washington D.C. It’s advice to live by.

Rick Pfautz is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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