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How Reliable Are You?

FedEx had an advertisement showing a woman, walking down a busy city street carrying a box. Prominently displayed on the box was the word FedEx. Under the woman’s picture were the following words:

Ours isn’t the only name on the box. Amy’s reputation is on the line.
When her client asks if the contracts will arrive in the morning, Amy says “yes.”
Brave Amy, delving into the world of “yes.” “Yes” raises the stakes.
“Yes” comes with responsibility. There are no loopholes in “yes.”
Is Amy worried? No. Relax, its FedEx.

Perhaps you have seen this ad, or one like it, that talks about reliably doing what you said you would. In this case, accurately delivering packages to the right place at the right time. Most of the well-known delivery services make such claims. They sell their reputation for reliability. In fact, it is this reputation that is the main reason so many people trust these companies with their packages; they deliver what they say they will deliver where and when they say they will deliver it. They give their word and customers hold them accountable for keeping it.

So why am I telling you about the delivery business? Because I would like you to consider that you are in the delivery business regardless of your position or title. Whether you work for General Electric, Nationwide Insurance, or the U.S. Marines, you are in the delivery business. Whether you are a CEO, a vice president, a project manager or a supervisor, you are in the delivery business. Whether you are a fund raiser, a bookkeeper, or a secretary you are in the delivery business. What you deliver, and to whom, will be different depending on your job, but you will still be in the delivery business.

Whenever someone asks you to do something for them and you say yes, you have agreed to make some kind of delivery to or for them in the future. You might need to deliver new software to clients, a report to your boss, or an expense report to Harriet in Accounting. You might need to deliver a performance review to an employee, a project plan to your team or a capital request to the CFO. Even responses to emails and phone calls, participation at meetings, and making requests or promises to peers are deliveries you might need to make in order to keep your agreements to deliver. You can’t escape the fact that whatever your job, whatever your position, you need to deliver things to others AND receive things from them. Whether you deliver physical objects, services, information, or communications, you are in the delivery business.

Of course, there is more to the delivery business than just making the delivery. There is all the work that goes on before the delivery. You may have to develop, assemble or test some things in order to produce whatever is you are to deliver. A report to your boss, for example, requires getting the necessary information from other people, sorting and analyzing it, then organizing and preparing the final product. The report is what you deliver, but work is involved in producing it too.

So, you not only deliver, you probably also gather, sort and assemble materials and ideas in order to make the delivery as agreed. You know that if any of these preliminary tasks doesn’t get done, your delivery will be at risk. But that doesn’t alter the fact that you are still, first and foremost, in the delivery business. In fact, the most visible aspect of your job is the delivery. People don’t see all the work behind the scenes, but they do know whether or not the delivery happened and whether you delivered was what you said you would when you said you would. And when you don’t, for whatever reason (and there are always reasons), it creates problems for them and damages your reputation.

People really don’t care why a delivery was late or damaged, only that it was. This might seem harsh or even unfair, but think about a time when you were counting on getting something from someone at work, something that was important to you, and you didn’t get it. Maybe it was a delivery you needed in order to keep your agreement with someone else—an important someone else. Got one in mind? OK, were you upset about not getting the delivery? Angry? Worried? Did you really care about their reasons why you didn’t get it? You may have listened to the reasons, even empathized with them, but it didn’t change the fact that you didn’t get what you needed.

What if we were evaluated on how reliable we are at delivering what we said we would when we said we would to everyone with whom we work? You know, what if people “contracted” with us to deliver a particular “package” to them or someone else within a specified time line and then held us to account for the “contract”? Not just for project deliverables, but the day to day things we are asked to deliver? What if promotions, raises, plum assignments, etc. were all a product of our overall reliability and if our reliability was actually tracked? How good would we be? Would we be as good as, better than, or worse than the delivery services?

In the absence of real hard data that tracks our “delivery reliability”, we would at best only have an impression of how good we are. I do know that the data we have collected shows an average “on time delivery reliability” of 70%, which is below the reported delivery reliabilities of the leading delivery services (FedEx, UPS, USPS). Though the data also shows it is possible to increase this reliability to over 90%, which is above the delivery services.

The Myth that Leadership is Personal

It is time to end the myth that leadership is a personal phenomenon. It’s not. Sorry, but leadership is a relationship that takes at least two. Leadership requires a person engaged in leading and the person(s) being engaged. By “engaged in leading”, I mean speaking for something that does not currently exist. Such speaking may be “for” something that could exist or happen, such as when President John Kennedy proposed the U.S., by the end of the 1960’s, land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth. Or, such speaking may be “against” something that currently exists or happens, such as when President Trump called for the end of illegal immigration into the U.S. The intent of such speaking is to garner “followers”, people who are enrolled in what is being said and support, if not work for it, to happen.

Traditional approaches to leadership propose that whether or not someone is – or can be – a leader, especially an effective leader, relies on their personal qualities, characteristics, or attributes, e.g., their personality. For example, some people believe you need charisma to be a leader. Others consider that people who provide structure and direction make good leaders, whereas others think people need to be attentive to and considerate of those they seek to lead. Still others feel that anyone can be a leader depending on the situation.

In all of these approaches, it is assumed that whether someone is or can be an effective leader will depend on them individually and has little or nothing to do with those they seek to lead. Such an assumption ignores the fact that leadership takes two: someone to propose goals and to follow up on them, and someone who resonates with what is in both of those communications. In a very real sense, leadership is like Velcro. You need two compatible pieces for Velcro to work, the hooks and the loops.

We are all familiar with the idea that food is attractive to someone who is hungry, though not to someone who is over-full. If we come across someone who is hungry and we speak about food, chances are they will resonate with what we say, though even then it will have to be attractive to them. If we talk about food they find unappealing, they will likely turn off to what we are saying no matter how pleasantly we say it. It is the listener, therefore, who determines if what a leader says is attractive enough to take action, not the speaker.

Something someone says is only “attractive” if the one listening has a corresponding “active” disposition regarding the subject. And, unless the speaker actually knows what is “active” for the listener, what they say may or may not resonate with the listener. When a political candidate holds a rally for supporters, they can be reasonably sure that their supporters are “active” for what is going to be said, and that those supporters will find what is said “attractive”. This is how the supporters create and reinforce the candidate, and how the candidate reassures their supporters.

Leadership is not a personal trait, it is relational. If leadership were truly personal, based only on the qualities, characteristics, or attributes of the speaker, then why isn’t that person a leader everywhere? The observation that no one is a leader everywhere, and that some people are turned off by the very person who turns on others, suggests that leadership is more like Velcro.


While a variety of sources have influenced me regarding this article, I make special mention of Landmark Worldwide and Werner Erhard whose work and programs have informed and shaped my thinking.

My Book

The Four Conversations: Daily Communication that Gets Results

by Jeffrey Ford and Laurie Ford. Published by Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, CA, 2009.

Awarded Best Book in Management for 2009 by 800 CEO READ

Rated #5 Best Business Book of 2009 by The Toronto Globe and Mail

Accomplishing your goals takes more than passion, vision, and commitment: it takes talking.  But not just “more talking”. To be successful, your talking must go beyond the rules of well-mannered communication skills. Getting more of what you want and less of what you don’t want—in work and in life—depends on how well you use four different types of conversations.

  • Initiative Conversations: Whenever you propose something new or different – introduce a new goal, propose an idea, or launch some kind of change – you are initiating something. Effective Initiative Conversations will tell people what you want to accomplish, when you want to accomplish it, and why it matters.
  • Understanding Conversations: There are times you want people to understand something, and to see the meaning of an idea, instruction, or goal. To have people connect a new idea to their current job, or engage in working toward a new goal, you need to have an effective Understanding Conversation. These will be 2-way exchanges with explanations, questions, and discussion about how things will be done, who will do them, and where the resources and results will be.
  • Performance Conversations: If you want people to take an action or produce a result, you want to master Performance Conversations. These are the conversations that include specific requests and promises to clarify whatever actions, results, and other requirements (such as timing, quality, etc.) you expect someone to deliver. Performance Conversations are specifically designed to get people into action, and they provide the foundation for building accountability.
  • Closure Conversations: Any time you report on the status of a project, follow-up on a request or promise, or tell people that a job is complete, you are having a Closure Conversation. These are the conversations that complete the past by closing out some piece of business, and they build credibility, accountability, and good relationships.

You use one or more of the four conversations every time you communicate! You can be more successful and effective, at work and in life, by improving your skills with each type of conversation. You can bring more trust, productivity, and accountability into your workplace, for more satisfying relationships and better teamwork. Use this practical guide to learn more about the four conversations, and you can turn your communication challenges into accomplishments.


My Articles

The articles available here for downloading include both academic and practitioner articles. The academic articles are published in refereed journals or professional books and are written to provide a conceptual or theoretical understanding to some aspect of leadership or management. Although written for an academic audience, I have used these articles in graduate and executive education courses at Ohio State to provide a framework for thinking about specific issues related to organization change. The practitioner articles are published in journals intended for executives and managers to support them in their leadership and management, particularly with regard to organization change.

The articles are organized in three ways:

  1. Articles on Organizational Change: Articles that deal with different issues regarding the nature of organization change.
  2. Articles on Management and Leadership in Change: Articles that deal with issues related to the leadership and management of change other than resistance.
  3. Articles on Resistance to Change: Articles that deal with resistance to change and provide a different perspective on it and its potential value in the conduct of change.


Jeffrey teaching Performance Star

Jeffrey teaching MBA course on managing change

Hi, I’m  Jeffrey Ford.  As a Professor Emeritus of Management in the Max M. Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University, I designed and taught MBA, MHR, EMBA, and executive education courses on leading and managing change, leadership, and high performance teams.  I am the author, along with my wife Laurie, of The Four Conversations: Daily Communication that Gets Results (Berrett-Koehler, 2009) which identifies four conversations that underlie leadership and management effectiveness and was awarded the Best Management Book of 2009 by 800-CEO-READ.  Both of these books are used in my classes.

I hold a B.S. in Marketing from the University of Maryland, an M.B.A. in Marketing and a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior, both from Ohio State.  Prior to joining the Fisher College of Business, I served on the faculties of Rutgers – The State University of New Jersey and the Kelly School of Business at Indiana University.  My articles on change management have been published in numerous academic journals as well as Harvard Business Review and Organizational Dynamics.  Copies of some of articles are available here.