Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Why Defining Expectations Is Important For Any CEO

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!

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


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events


    Strategic Planning Workshop

    1:00 - 5:00 pm

    Over 70% of Executives Surveyed Agree: Many Strategic Planning Efforts Lack Systematic Approach Tips for Enhancing Your Strategic Planning Process

    Executives expressed frustration with their current strategic planning process. Issues include:

    1. Lack of systematic approach (70%)
    2. Laundry lists without prioritization (68%)
    3. Decisions based on personalities rather than facts and information (65%)


    Steve Rutan and Denise Harrison have put together an afternoon workshop that will provide the tools you need to address these concerns.  They have worked with hundreds of executives to develop a systematic approach that will enable your team to make better decisions during strategic planning.  Steve and Denise will walk you through exercises for prioritizing your lists and steps that will reset and reinvigorate your process.  This will be a hands-on workshop that will enable you to think about your business as you use the tools that are being presented.  If you are ready for a Strategic Planning tune-up, select this workshop in your registration form.  The additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    New York, NY: ​​​Chief Executive's Corporate Citizenship Awards 2017

    Women in Leadership Seminar and Peer Discussion

    2:00 - 5:00 pm

    Female leaders face the same issues all leaders do, but they often face additional challenges too. In this peer session, we will facilitate a discussion of best practices and how to overcome common barriers to help women leaders be more effective within and outside their organizations. 

    Limited space available.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $495 will be added to your total.

    Golf Outing

    10:30 - 5:00 pm
    General’s Retreat at Hermitage Golf Course
    Sponsored by UBS

    General’s Retreat, built in 1986 with architect Gary Roger Baird, has been voted the “Best Golf Course in Nashville” and is a “must play” when visiting the Nashville, Tennessee area. With the beautiful setting along the Cumberland River, golfers of all capabilities will thoroughly enjoy the golf, scenery and hospitality.

    The golf outing fee includes transportation to and from the hotel, greens/cart fees, use of practice facilities, and boxed lunch. The bus will leave the hotel at 10:30 am for a noon shotgun start and return to the hotel after the cocktail reception following the completion of the round.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $295 will be added to your total.