Executive Success Attribute: Trust, but Verify

“Trust, but verify” was a signature phrase adopted and made famous by President Ronald Reagan and he frequently used it when discussing US relations with the Soviet Union.  This phrase or its derivations are also used by other agencies, book titles, legal arguments, entertainment shows and music lyrics.  It is interesting that many successful executives use this principle in managing their companies and a reason why many executives trying to be successful fall short by failing to effectively implement this principle.

Trust is critical to the effective operation of an organization.  One person trusts another to do what they say will do, when they promised, to the level of performance expected and if something interferes with the successful outcome reports back as to what has changed and when the task will be completed.

Problems with Just Trusting
Unfortunately it is easy to be too “trusting” and take at face value a commitment from someone who makes a promise that is clearly beyond their ability to perform successfully.  Qualifying the commitment is often viewed as inserting a level of conflict or tension into the supervisor/employee dialog that many find uncomfortable.  So the commitment is taken without question, which potentially undermines the ability of the organization to perform successfully.

Unfortunately things “happen” resulting in increasingly complex circumstances and what were initially sure commitments made by good, qualified and well-intended people fall apart.  Despite best efforts it is impossible to bring the promised commitment in on time and it is then necessary to communicate the impact and the corrective action so that the organization can take additional measures to absorb the impact and still keep its overall goal intact.

This is the ideal response when unexpected or events interfere with scheduled performance.  The more typical situation, however, is that due to poor training, unpredictable human nature, poor attitudes people will fail to discover or recognize that a commitment problem exists or are unwilling to admit a problem exists or to take responsibility to take appropriate action to manage the commitment back on schedule and report the problem to the organization.

Therefore it is the responsibility of senior executive and management team to have a verify process that measures the ability of the business to deliver on its promised commitments.

Verify to Confirm
A seasoned executive will use a variety of steps to verify commitments by the organization. Some of these are:

  • MBWA (Management By Walking Around) – Touring operations that are key to the organizations performance will allow a senior manager to get immediate feedback on how things are going.
    • Asking indirect questions is an effective way of surfacing issues that will raise questions or comments that will either confirm the commitment or cause it to be questioned.
    • Being accessible in an informal setting will make it easier for a line supervisor to discuss complex circumstances that affect delivery performance that they would otherwise not admit to in a meeting with their peers.
  • Stratify Commitments – Look for aggressive commitments from key people and examine them more thoroughly.
    • Does the person have a track record of delivering on their promises?
    • What has been there reputation of meeting or exceeding commitments?
    • Is their supporting evidence – analysis, corroborating statements from other employees, delivery history, etc?
  • Regular reporting cycles or status meetings – Establish a regular cycle consistent with the urgency for performance that requires interim status reports and progress toward goals.
    • Brief meetings that require key departments or operations to report status will soon indicate whether commitments are on a track to completing on time.
    • Metrics that measure progress will also support that things are going as expected or at a minimum point to critical operations that need to be examined further to make sure they are on track or what measures they are taking to recover and restore performance.

Successful executive management is comprised of many attributes.  The executive who can “verify” effectively will have a significant leg up on those that just go with the flow which can work for awhile but in the long run, particularly in a high performance business, will prove to be a flawed approach to managing successfully.

Effective verification is not snooping but a healthy examination of the organizations ability to perform effectively.  An effective executive will use this process not for criticism but to determine where additional training is needed, improved communication, better listening, review of the commitment process and investment in appropriate equipment and facilities.

Look for an involved executive who not only trusts but verifies well and you will find a successful business.


  1. […] and move it into a more profitable direction. The key point was confirming what I was being told (Trust and Verify). Verifying that the P/L confirmed the confidence of the owner that he had a solid business opened […]

Leave a Reply