Why Defining Expectations Is Important For Any CEO

Too many years ago, I took on a client that was so disorganized it was out of control. Three generations in the making, though barely breaking even, it still had potential. When I made my initial visit I knew they had reached the right decision in asking for help; stacks of papers on desks, not even a space left to set down a cup of coffee, stacks of paper on the floor creating walking paths through the small central office and a safe, probably one ton in weight or more, door wide open with the contents, disorganized of course, on display for all to see. I thought to myself, ‘This one will be easy.’

We got off to a good start; the management team and the staff were highly motivated to take control of the situation…and they did. With more timely and accessible information, they were now controlling expenses, raising prices where they could and becoming more effective every day and feeling good about it!  Burst the bubble; a few months in I was handed a letter from the IRS stating that the company owed in excess of $200,000 for past due Social Security and Federal Income Tax withholdings. The letter included an ‘invitation’ to appear at a hearing several weeks out.

Go figure, past notices had been received but then tossed by gen2 or gen3 into any one of the paper piles I saw when I first walked in the door. I put together a presentation showing actions we had taken to reverse the company’s past performance as well as conservative projections demonstrating our ability to pay the obligation—over time.  At the meeting, the IRS agent listened respectfully and when I finished our presentation he complimented us on our approach and voiced his ‘unofficial’ confidence that our plans and actions would yield positive results. He then said ‘We want half of the amount by next Wednesday and the balance two weeks after that – not negotiable.’ He had clearly defined expectations!

About the same time, while evaluating the warehouse operations of a distributor I was struck by the precision of the manager in charge.  Most of what he did then has since been automated but he might as well have been the model for the order picking software in use today. I watched as he would call each lift truck operator over, hand them a piece of paper and say, in effect, ‘pick theses 10 items for door 3; it should take you about 8 minutes.’ The operators knew exactly what was expected and even how long it should take.  Some folks refer to this as short interval scheduling; I keep it as an example of clearly defined expectations.

Late day discoveries…we’ve all had them. Before heading for home we walk down the hall to check on a project milestone with a colleague; the colleague has left for the day.  Or, on the commute home we’re reminded that a report we had been expecting was a no show.  What’s the point?  Our customers and clients place expectations on us and expect that we will meet them or exceed them and let them know ahead of time if we won’t.  Don’t we deserve as much?  Only if we ask!

Defining expectations includes action requested, date and time certain for completion and, a commitment to advise if the action can’t be completed or completed on time. The IRS agent and the warehouse manager experiences have forever reminded me that asking for the first without the other two is on me and when I find myself ‘expediting.’ It’s generally my problem and not the colleague given the assignment.

Lesson learned.

Postscript: In the first experience described above, when we organized the safe we found a stock certificate for a locally based Fortune 500 company, the value of which not only paid the IRS arrears but provided working capital for the next four months.  How lucky can you get?

Read more: Why You Can’t Tolerate Ambush Communications

Fred Engelfried
Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.