Lead by responding

Get back to people promptly. It'll pay off in many ways.

5 min read



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Jim Brothwell was a wise man who, early in my career, took me under his wing.  He was my wife’s distant cousin, and when we moved to the city where he lived he opened up his home to us for an occasional weeknight dinner or weekend barbeque. We hardly knew him, but Jim and his wife made conversation easy.

He had recently retired from 40-year career in banking, and I think he enjoyed giving a young buck advice.  One of the tips he shared with me didn’t seem earth-shaking at the time, but I’m glad I took to heart what I now fondly call “Jim’s Rule”: Promptly return your calls.

“When somebody calls you,” Jim said, “they need something. They’ve had to stop whatever it is they’re working on and can’t get it done until they gather some sort of information from you.”

He thought it was rude to keep people waiting and that professional courtesy necessitated a prompt reply.

Keep in mind, these were pre-voicemail days. Returning to the office after an appointment, there was no telling how many “while you were out” slips would be waiting on your desk, some with as little information as a name and phone number. Returning them took both intention and resolve, because you never knew how long it was going to take.

Despite the impediments, I determined to follow Jim’s Rule. Since then I’ve always tried to get back to people quickly, even if it inconveniences me. I think others have appreciated that and I believe it has benefitted my career.

Those days, of course, were quaint in comparison to today. We essentially had two communications options: phone and mail. Prior to the (magical at the time) invention of the fax machine, the primary way to deliver a written message was via the postal service, even within the same city. The advent of email and texting have made following Jim’s Rule a bit more complicated.

Back then, when something arrived via the mail, reasonable expectation for a response was a few days. As the telephone became the norm, expected response time shrank to perhaps a day or two. Then came email, with the expectation of a response being a matter of hours. And now we have texting, which has rudely wedged its way into business communications and to which people expect an almost immediate response. It’s nuts.

Not even Jim would say that you should stop everything to reply to every text or email. That would be as unproductive as it is stressful. But the principle behind his rule still applies: People who reach out to you need something; the sooner you can respond, the sooner they can get on with their work. And the more they will appreciate it. And you.

As much as technology can stress us out, it also opens up our options. It takes less time to return a text, for example, than to return a letter. And it might be more efficient to dash off an email than make a phone call, especially after the latter’s obligatory exchange of pleasantries.

Each method of communication has its strengths and weaknesses (texting can be perceived as invasive, don’t send an email when a conversation is what’s called for, etc.), but each has its place, and we can draw our own lines based on our individual styles and personalities.

Despite the cost to my concentration that regular interruptions cause, I tend to err on the side of responsiveness, with one exception. No doubt Jim had to deal with the occasional annoying salesperson, but to him “spam” was never more than mystery meat. I make an exception to his rule when a voicemail is clearly scripted or an email blasted. If there isn’t a human on the other end, I delete without a shred of guilt.

On the other hand, I will reply to someone I don’t know if they reach out to me having first done their homework, even if I’m not interested. The second best answer to “yes” is “no,” and as a salesperson myself, I’ll take a quick rejection over a long silence every time.

In business, as in life, sometimes the little things mean the most. You may not be highly intelligent, highly talented or highly educated, but you can be highly responsive — for which you will likely receive dividends beyond what you even realize.

Leadership has always been about being willing to make hard calls. Jim taught me that it’s also about returning them. Promptly.

Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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