Why do success and punctuality go together?


As a young ambitious TV producer, I once sat on the advisory board of an international television festival. Arriving late for a meeting one evening, the colleague I sat next to commented, "Yes you must be very busy." I was producing a massive internationally co-produced series. But he ran a national network. His comment was a subtle but unmistakable put-down I've never forgotten.

High-achievers are punctual.

Are they so successful because they are also so punctilious -- or does being so make what makes them achieve so much? I don't know but I can't help but be struck by the fact that the most successful people I know share the following habits:

  • They turn up on times
  • They reply to emails swiftly
  • They remember peoples' names, no matter what their status
  • They are reliable.
We tend to think of leadership and excellence as residing in standout qualities: Mathematical genius, aesthetic dazzle. But these smaller traits contain profound messages. At the least, they signal self-discipline and good organization. More deeply, they imply a concern or at least respect for other people. Being punctual means you don't waste other peoples' time -- or think it is more important than your own. Replying swiftly allows others to get on with their work; you aren't their roadblock. Remembering names requires effort and that they do so implies they believe you matter. Being reliable frees their peers and colleagues from worrying about whether they'll deliver on promises.

All of these habits build trust -- and trust hugely reduces the friction and costs of doing business. So these habits are profoundly efficient for both the long and the short term.

Consider the opposite behaviors. Being late, ignoring or delaying emails, forgetting other people and being capricious in honoring promises sends a loud message: I matter more than anyone else. To get away with this attitude requires power -- so the caprice is also a demonstration of status. It also leaves other people feeling or being helpless. No reply to an email means other people can't progress with their work. If you aren't reliable, it means nobody can be quite sure of what is happening around them. You render others powerless while exhibiting your own status. Such wayward behavior in small things can look powerful while being insidiously costly and destructive.

This all seems so self-evident. And yet over the last few months, I've found myself repeatedly in meetings where key people are late, or working with colleagues who are unreliable. They're all senior, successful people and they get away with it. But I wonder if they fully understand or control the very clear messages that they send. I also can't help but wonder just how much further they'll get. 

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.