top of page

You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do

How To Build — and How to Destroy — a Good Reputation

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” — Warren Buffett

One of the most valuable assets we possess can’t be measured, counted or displayed. It takes years to build and seconds to destroy, and we depend on it not only in business but in our marriages, friendships and all the other relationships in our lives. Our REPUTATION — the value others determine when we give them our word — shapes how the world sees us and largely determines the many opportunities in front of us.

One of my early Theory of 5 mentors, Harvey Ritter, once described trust as a finely decorated and trimmed tree going through a brutal storm. After the rain clears, the tree will have lost leaves and branches, and its battered form might not resemble how it once appeared. It takes months, if not years, of nurturing, watering, sunlight and cultivation to reach its formerly pristine shape.

The tree example is what I used when my daughters were young, to allow them to visualize better how a concept like “trust” can be damaged by lies and other abuses of trust like the trimmed tree in a storm. Even as adults, we need to pay attention to the trust others hold in us. Trust is earned over time — and will be lost instantly if abused. My mentors stressed to me that, when our actions, behaviors and results match what we say we’ll do, we’ll build credibility and a good reputation. On the other hand, people will see us as hypocrites when our actions and behaviors are not aligned, and any trust they might have had in us will quickly evaporate.

While these concepts might seem simple to our adult understanding, it’s worth a moment to consider what our words and actions can mean to those around us. In the end, it’s been said, all we have is our reputation. Are we as good as our word?

There are two ways reputation can be damaged — one is obvious and the other we might not often think about — that we should avoid at all costs.

The Reputation Killer — The most obvious way to lose someone’s trust is to lie to them. Lies destroy trust like a fire through a dry forest. Lies do damage not only today but, because they reveal the character of the person telling them, they affect all future interactions we have with that person. We lose faith in that person.

Children often go through a lying phase as a way to test the boundaries of their world. When parents don’t show them precisely where those boundaries are — and that lying falls well outside those boundaries — children who lie grow up to be adults who have no problem stretching the truth. While they see this as a shortcut to get what they want or to avoid punishment, lies eventually catch up to liars. Even small lies that don’t seem consequential at the time will build up and, ultimately, work to erode our reputation. Without truth, there is no trust.

This type of broken trust is particularly hard to repair because we doubt the very intentions of the person who lied to us. Are they sorry they lied, or are they sorry they got caught lying? Even if the person has a genuine change of heart and feels remorse, the damage has been done. It will take a lot of work on both sides to repair this trust.

While we might want to trust them — especially if they are a friend or family member — on some level, we will resist that urge because we doubt their character. When we catch them in a lie again or see that their lying is a pattern in their lives, regaining trust becomes more difficult. Eventually, we write them off. If it’s a workplace setting, they’ll lose their job or at least not be trusted with anything important. If they are a friend, we’ll stop calling. If they are family, we might smile when we see them, but we’ll avoid them whenever possible.

Reputation Erosion — Most of us have — or have had — at least one friend in our circle who is always 15 to 30 minutes late, no matter what. You could almost set your watch by their inconsistency. They usually have a “good” excuse — the traffic was terrible, they couldn’t find their keys, they forgot something and had to turn back, and so forth — but the fact is that they cannot be counted on to show up on time.

While it’s not malicious — they don’t mean to let people down — the end result is that their friends, family and colleagues learn to make allowances for their tardiness. If a group is meeting for dinner and they’re a little late, it’s not a big deal. If a group is meeting to go to a show, however, everyone feels put out. If they are late for a business meeting and have a key role to play, it could mean disaster. Even if this person manages to show up on time for a change, everyone who depends on them feels extra stress because their bad reputation always precedes them.

When we can’t depend on someone to do what they said they’d do — what they, in effect, promised — they’ll slowly lose our trust. Eventually, this person stops being invited to events when timing is imperative. In business, critical items get assigned to the people their leaders trust to get the job done.

Isolated incidents of being late, missing a deadline because of extraneous circumstances or simply forgetting to do a chore we promised to do aren’t reputation killers by themselves — as long as we work afterward to make it right. Most people drop the ball from time to time. When these incidents become a pattern, that is when our reputation will take a hit and the erosion begins.

I believe it is imperative that our promises mean something when we give them, no matter what. People who are inconsistent about the little things generally aren’t trusted with the big issues.

Our Word Is Our Bond

When we focus on being truthful in all our interactions and always doing what we say we’re going to do, people will know that they can count on us. Having that kind of reputation will fuel relationships and build strong foundations for all our relationships.

Another word for giving back

We live in the era of social media, the Internet and other forms of enhanced communication. With these tools come more opportunities to compare our situation not only with those around us, but with those living extravagant lifestyles. When I was a young child, I had no idea we didn’t have lots of money; I actually thought we were rich. Now, society seems to be locked in a race to see who can live beyond their means the most.

There are many in today’s society who seem to live by the motto “What’s in it for me?” My mentors have stressed the importance of avoiding these people whenever possible. If we ever catch ourselves falling into this mindset, we pull it out by the roots before it takes hold and sucks the energy from our lives.

We all need to look out for ourselves in this world; that’s a given. After all, with the possible exception of our parents or other loved ones, no one will care more about our success than we do. When self-interest is all we care about, though, that’s a sad, short-sighted, debilitating attitude to hold.

Through their actions, my mentors modeled and demonstrated to me that successful people do care about those around them, especially those people who have the desire to excel and are willing to put in the work to make it happen. They understand we don’t live in this world alone. We’re all connected, and the people in your life are as vital to you as you are to them. The “sharing is caring” philosophy, what many of us were taught in our youth, is true throughout our life. Share knowledge. Remember: Their success is our success.

Besides the joy of doing something for someone else, mentors do get something for themselves in return for their efforts: The best way to understand and internalize something is to teach it. In 1993, I was one of the three lead trainers at Saturn Corporation. One day, I was able to sit down with Skip LeFauve, President of Saturn, and I took the opportunity to ask him, “How do you stay so passionate and motivated?” His answer was simple: “I teach.” He said when he is teaching someone, it reinforces the lesson within his own mind and behaviors. “It motivates me and keeps me accountable. And, if I don’t do what I say when teaching, that would make me a hypocrite. The thought of someone thinking of me as a hypocrite pushes me to walk my talk.”

Becoming a mentor to others is an excellent way to motivate ourselves by lifting someone else through sharing of knowledge, modeling proper behavior and providing them with encouragement. Sometimes being a mentor just means listening to them and asking the right questions about themselves and what they want.

There’s an importance to rooting for each other, both in words and in action. Our families, friends and team members will appreciate our support, and will support us when we need it.

The happiest people I know actively show the people around them they have their backs. They never let them doubt it. They also make a point to support people, just as they were supported by others in the past. Mentoring isn’t a one-time event, but a cycle. Sometimes, we’ll need the mentoring; other times, we’ll be asked for our knowledge, support and encouragement.

It’s not only an older/younger cycle, either. When we have skill and knowledge in certain areas, we shouldn’t assume that everyone else does, as well. Younger people often know far more about cutting-edge technology than seniors, for example. If an older person asks for their help, they are asking that younger person to mentor them in this area. At any age, we might have skills in areas those around us would love to learn more about.

My mentors have found the truth in a simple but powerful statement: When a person provides value to the world, that person is rewarded with happiness and prosperity in their life. Those willing to assist others in helping them achieve their dreams will themselves find support when they need it the most.

Life is interactive. Living a Theory of 5 life means making sure we’re paying attention to both sides of the mentoring equation.

bottom of page