A colleague of mine, who has a business in the start-up stage, called me recently for advice. He had been chasing a big client for months and had finally got the call to come in for a meeting. The problem was that the meeting was in two days time and he was already committed to speak to a group of business people on leadership in another city. The next available time slot that the potential client had was in two weeks and they made it clear that they wanted to meet now.

He really needed the new client but was torn about what to do. He asked for my view. I hate answering these types of questions because the obvious answer is not what people really want to hear. Cutting through the fluff I told him to do the right thing and honour the commitment he had already made. Forget the if, buts or maybes! As Richard Branson once said “opportunities are like buses, there’s always another one coming.” But if you screw people around the opportunity flow will soon stop.

I am glad to say that my friend took my advice, did the right thing and guess what, the client found time in their diary three days later to meet him. Even better, he signed the deal. Good karma has a way of being repaid.

Meeting etiquette is an interesting pointer to the underlying culture of a business. The businesses that I operated had to have very good reasons for cancelling or rescheduling meetings – this was for ANY meeting at all, internal or external. The reason was simple – it requires discipline to keep commitments and it shows respect to the other party. It also builds a fabulous reputation. The contra is to habitually opt out, change and reschedule – this is a flaky way to do business and can lead to being considered unreliable. If it happens too often inevitably a message will be broadcast that says “my stuff is more important than yours and you’ll have to wait in the queue” or alternatively “I’m too disorganised or incompetent to follow through on my commitments.” Either way it’s bad business. Some might think this is a bit harsh. It isn’t – it is the natural outcome of this type of behaviour.

It all starts at the top. If the CEO treats meeting commitments with a laissez faire attitude (e.g. “something else/better came up”, “I’m too busy” etc. are sure signs) then it is hard to expect anyone else in the organisation to behave differently. People watch the boss and he/she has to communicate what is acceptable through their behaviour.  If they set low personal standards for meeting etiquette then this will become the company standard. If time management is a problem then only set meetings that you know you’ll be able to attend. Scratch them in your diary with a permanent marker if need be.

Be careful what message you are sending out. Verbal messages are useless unless they are supported by actions that are consistent with them. Disappointing others by failing to deliver on promises made may (seemingly) have no impact in the short term. However, you are being watched and judged every day by your staff, suppliers, customers, partners, peers and competitors. Every action you take adds positively or negatively to their perception of you– there are few neutral actions. Meetings are the example of this post but the issue is much deeper than this. Everything catches up to you in the end.

The solution is actually quite simple – set high standards and actually do what you say you’re going to do. Executing it is much tougher, however, and it is difficult to do consistently – it takes discipline and commitment as well as a need to embrace the old fashioned virtues of respect and courtesy. Those that do it, however, tend to achieve a lot more.

Have a great week!