Consulting 101: Credibility and Integrity

Let me preface this treatise with a message to those in my audience who actually know me in person. I’ve been doing what I do for almost 18 years. My blog posts are a compilation of observations stretching that whole time and back into my years in grade school. I do not refer to anyone in particular any of you and I may know. My blogs are mostly about me.
How many times can a restaurant you frequent get your order wrong before you stop spending your money there? How many times can a garage fail to fix your car before you take it somewhere else for service? As a consultant, contractor, or subject matter expert, how many mistakes is your customer willing to forgive? I don’t know either, so I always shoot for perfection.
In my practice, the struggle for perfection means I will not quickly offer my gut feeling on a solution to a problem. I want to research the situation and think it over for some time until I am comfortable taking a position. The discipline to be 99% sure about something before I share it helps me avoid mistakes. The more often I’m right the more my credibility builds. The buildup of credibility eventually leads to my customers’ increasing confidence in my work. And that’s great because, a lack of confidence in my expertise always manifests itself as more time wasted in explanations, healthy debate, and sometimes fruitless arguments about things I’m at least 99% sure of.
Relatively, I do not propose solutions that I cannot implement 100% myself. There is a theme of helplessness prevailing through some workplace environments; taking the shape of people who will not lift a finger to figure something out without being fully trained and having a stack of documentation. I’m going to put on my old fogey hat now and relate to you, my audience, how my first ASP web sites were written in notepad. My “simulator” was an actual Windows NT server with IIS and FrontPage extensions. In those days there wasn’t any documentation really because we were figuring it out as we went. I was handed a challenge that usually looked nothing like requirements and told to go figure it out. I did figure it out without training and it made a better professional out of me.
So when I say, “Let’s do it this way.” I mean I can do the whole thing this way myself if I have to. I’m 99% sure it will meet all the requirements on paper and the several that you haven’t thought of yet.
Now, I am human and I do make mistakes. Under the perfection mandate, I strive to find my mistakes and fix them before everyone notices. I once worked for a company where the products all had a call home feature. When there was an error the system would either dial in or FTP a message to a system in the home office that would create a ticket and kick off a workflow for resolution. I was so impressed by the fact that a customer could come in the office in the morning to find an email from tech support notifying them an error was detected and fixed remotely overnight and the customer suffered no outage as a result. I strive to conduct my business the same way by fixing an issue as soon as I determine it’s my responsibility and then explaining what happened and how I fixed it. That’s exercising integrity to build credibility. The value of building credibility is always greater than the perceived liability of admitting to bugs with integrity.
All that said, every action has its equal and opposite reaction. There will always be competitive forces… or persons who will work to build credibility through damaging yours. After all, it seems hard to build credibility by simply agreeing with someone else all the time even if the other person has a 99% success rate. The perception is that always agreeing with another makes one a follower or toady. Likewise, some resources are hiding the fact that they will not succeed with your proposal because it involves things they haven’t been trained on. Yes, the corporate business environment often mirrors school yard factions carving out various spheres of dominance. Woe unto the executive staff that has to always play teacher or referee. Truly, you have to pity decision makers who are constantly dealing with weak personalities who cannot tolerate others discovering they may not be perfect, so seek to advance solely through bringing down others.
The school yard provides the tactic for dealing with this. Get to teacher first! Luckily, if you’re catching, fixing, and admitting to your short comings before anyone notices, your competition shows up to tattle on you and looks rather foolish. Teacher says, “Yes I know. He told me and corrected the issue in such a seamless matter we never knew anything was wrong.”
Don’t misunderstand. It makes me sick that adults conduct themselves in this matter. It’s one of the reasons I sought the freedom of working for myself. Even now, when these situations arise, I suffer less than healthy rises in blood pressure. Why do we have to go through this schoolyard battle again after I’ve already built up all this credibility? The point is to revert back to the idea of not immediately going with gut reactions mentioned above. Don’t fall into the competitive traps. Diligently building credibility through accuracy and integrity should, in theory, pay off in the long run. Optionally, find a sub-contractor and throw them to the wolves.

Politics be Damned! Fess up When You Mess up.

When I was quite young, between 3 and 5 I think, I made a mistake and lied about it. My father has always worked on and collected various instruments for commercial and amateur radio communications. One of these radios was on the floor by the couch one morning and I was playing with it. I remember at some point dropping a dime in it. I was scared and my father came over to ask what I was doing.

I remember asking, “What would happen if a dime fell in those slots?”

He asked, “Did you drop a dime in one of those slots?”

“No.” I answered and walked away. I entered the dining room some time later and saw him screwing the case back on the radio we had been discussing.

He turned to me and said, “You know if I had plugged this in it could have blown up in my face because of where that dime landed. It’s always better to admit a mistake so someone can help you fix it faster before anything really bad happens.”

I started my professional carrier at Tower Hill Insurance Group, Inc. in Gainesville, FL in 1997. In the early 1990’s the state of Florida had entered the insurance business because so many carrier had decided the hurricane risk was too great after the devastation left by Amelia. Five years or so big carriers were again willing to take risks in Florida and the new insurance commissioner wanted insurance carriers to buy the policies issued by the state in order to earn the privilege to again sell property casualty insurance products in the state that they abandoned. Tower Hill negotiated an agreement between a carrier and the state where Tower Hill would administrate the transfer, premium collection and claim processing for the policies this carrier purchased. My role in this arrangement was to import the policy information from a huge text file sent on CD once a month for the policies that were renewing for the next month. Those policies would renew with the new carrier.

I was… still pretty new at a lot of this stuff. I had only been out of college and at this job for a year. There was still an ample amount of self-directed on the job learning taking place. Well somehow, the details are a little foggy on wither I misunderstood the file specification or I got things switched around when I was creating the values, but I managed to get all the days and months for the effective and expiration dates switched. Yes I managed to create the European formatted dates. Worse yet… it was 3 months into the imports that I found the problem.

Give me some credit, I had a self-imposed sanity check, and found my own mistake before our policy management software vendor ever detected an issue, and just 5 days before we had a scheduled audit… Do I take vacation, abruptly quit, or just go get absurdly drunk?

Actually, I thought of my father’s advice. I took my problem to my manager who was gifted with a saintly proportion of patience and understanding. Mr. Chris Allen as I remember it laughed at me, shook his head, and said, “Common we need to go tell Keaton”. That’s Mr. Benson VP of IT.

“Wait, I have to go with you and explain what happened?” I said.

“Yup.”

Other than thinking I was either getting fired or possibly shot, I only remember one other detail of that situation. As we were walking to the vendor reps office in our building Keaton stopped me and said, “Look George, if you’re not making any mistakes… you’re not working hard.”

That was the biggest motivator of all time. Yeah it was hard, and involved a lot of manual checking from the data entry team, and a torrid of sarcasm form the vendor rep who was threatened by the fact I could write robust GUI apps in 1/10th the time his company could put out a patch. But we got it fixed, and we had a great story of how our processes averted a disaster to give to the carrier’s auditor which earned us shiny gold stars on the audit report for honestly, ethics, compliance, and dedication to accuracy.