Consider the source

Who’s more credible: a teacher, a politician or a business leader?

Credibility is typically predicated on saying what will be done and then doing it. It’s a basic concept, but too many believe that if they say something repeatedly, and loudly enough, people will eventually take it as gospel — even though the proclamation is based on hype or a self-serving prevarication.

When a child starts kindergarten, the teacher is often viewed as omnipotent. Over a short period, the student learns when the educator says something, it happens, such as “put your crayons away and you’ll get a treat.” In essence, the pupil is conditioned to trust based on the teacher’s actions.

Politicians, on the other hand, make many promises. Typically, they never keep all of them and, too frequently, none of them. In short order, the electorate becomes skeptical and dismisses the politicians’ promulgations as hype, and before long, the bigger the promise, the less that is expected.

Business leaders build credibility by running the gauntlet of truth or consequences. A new boss comes on the scene, explains to the troops what the plan is and how it will be achieved, as well as what happens if the goals are reached or, conversely, the price of falling short.

At first, subordinates give the leader the benefit of the doubt, but maintain healthy skepticism as the plan plays out. If the boss’s strategy bears fruit, it’s the first step in the climb to credibility. The second time around the same manager utters a new pronouncement, and cha-ching, he or she once again produces as promised. Thus, followers become measured believers.

After about three or four repeated positive performances, the now battle-tested executive has gained an irrefutable reputation as a mover and shaker. Credibility is established and the boss is legitimized as someone for whom others are willing to take that elusive leap of faith when asked.

The big question is how to establish credibility. All things being equal, the first step for a new leader should not be to promise the sun, the moon and the stars. Instead, it’s critical to pick a goal that can be readily reached and, better yet, exceeded. This is no different from a public company making earnings projections, with the confidence that the numbers will not just be met, but beaten. When this happens, a stock often goes up; but G_d forbid a “miss,” and the stock takes a deep dive faster than a torpedoed U-2 boat.

In business, there is a delicate balance between sandbagging with a no-brainer target versus undertaking an objective that is meaningful and makes a difference. If a leader aims low, maybe he or she won’t miss. But if it’s a layup, it won’t strengthen the resume of success and may even diminish it.

When a proven boss communicates a direction, employees will “consider the source.” If trust and credibility have been earned through getting the job done, employees will follow the leader. Kindergarten teachers learn all of this in their first week on the job … politicians, perhaps, not so much.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax and in 16-years, as CEO, grew the retailer to sales of $5 billion in 1,000 stores worldwide.