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How good is your say-to-do ratio?

The right balance is heavy on follow-through and reliability. Those who have it will go further in life.

A version of this article appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of strategy+business.

Think for a moment about all the colleagues in your immediate circle, whether they are your peers or people you manage. Which of them can be trusted to follow through when they say they are going to do something? And which ones make you think, “Hmm, that’s probably not going to happen. I’ll have to follow up”?

Throughout the pandemic, there has been a lot of discussion about the qualities that matter most in employees. We hear about the importance of being an agile learner or embracing ambiguity, for example. Those are important attributes, of course, but we can’t lose sight of a foundational quality that sets the best team players apart: reliability.

Reliability is a theme that has come up often in my many interviews with CEOs over the years, but it was Brett Wilson, who at the time of our conversation was CEO of TubeMogul, an enterprise software company based in Emeryville, Calif., who shared with me the memorable concept of the say-to-do ratio. “[It’s] important in any organization, but particularly in a startup, where all the odds are against you in the beginning,” Wilson told me. “You just need people who follow through, and it’s a lot more fun when the people you work with do that. You can count on them, and you can get by with fewer layers of management, and communication flows faster.”

The notion surfaced again in a recent conversation I had with Andre Durand, CEO of Denver-based software company Ping Identity, when I asked what he expects of any new employee at Ping.

“It comes down to trust,” Durand said. “If you look at the essence of trust, it’s a one-to-one ratio between say and do. If over some period of time, I observe a good ratio of someone doing what they say they will do, they will earn my trust.”

He added: “There are some people who are so reliable that I could set my clock by what they say. And then magic happens, because I will give them full autonomy—‘I trust you, make the decision, and go.’”

I applaud leaders who make this issue explicit and send a clear signal to the company that following through matters. If people are not held to account and are left to operate with a lopsided say-to-do ratio, the effect can be like a negative version of compound interest. It adds up.

Reliability goes to the heart of what it means to be a team player. It removes the hierarchy of an org chart and acknowledges that everyone relies on one another to achieve a goal.

I experienced this issue firsthand as a manager of teams of reporters at both Newsweek and the New York Times. There were some people who, if they said they were going to do something, were like money in the bank. I didn’t have to think about the assignment anymore, because I knew they would, for example, file the story when they promised. With others, I knew I would have to keep their to-do lists on my to-do list. But all the small instances of slow responses and the need for follow-ups grate over time. If the majority of people in an organization don’t have a strong say-to-do culture, the business is going to be slower than it otherwise could or should be.

That’s one reason I like to say that the three most beautiful words in the English language a manager can hear are “I’m on it.” Employees who say it—and mean it—share the important quality of owning the responsibility for following through. They get things done. And they are gold if you can get them on your team.

Reliability also goes to the heart of what it means to be a team player. It removes the hierarchy of an org chart and acknowledges that everyone relies on one another to achieve a goal. Paula Long, who was CEO of DataGravity, a California-based software company, when I interviewed her, captured the spirit of this idea. “I like to say that we’re all subcontractors to one another,” she said. “‘You and I have a contract that we’re going to get something done by a particular time. You need to make sure that you meet that contract with the same level of quality I agree to meet it with. It’s about accountability and respecting each other’s time.”

Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to improve your to say-to-do ratio, if you decide that it’s important—and everyone should, because it helps people build a reputation that will ultimately lead to more promotions. It requires the simple discipline of being diligent about your to-do list. It may seem tedious, but nothing beats making a note to yourself—on whatever list you keep—that you have to deliver something, and when it has to be done. You may not catch 100% of everything you have to do, but you will discover how easy it is to set yourself apart.

Adam Bryant
Adam Bryant is senior managing director of the ExCo Group, a leadership development and executive mentoring firm. His next book, The Leap to Leader: How Ambitious Managers Make the Jump to Leadership, will be published in July 2023 by Harvard Business Review Press.

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