Authenticity Starts with Integrity

The key ingredient for building trusted relationships

“Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching."

C. S. Lewis

I once worked for a company that had 35 days per month. When deals slipped past quarter close, as they would invariably do from time to time, a few got slipped in before the books closed. No one seemed to notice until the government discovered these accounting irregularities and sent several of the executives to prison.

In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, accounting misdeeds sank the fortunes of many public companies. Enron, Worldcom, Waste Management, and others paid a significant price for the crimes committed by their executives. The collateral damage of these scandals led to jail sentences, bankruptcies, layoffs, and decimated retirement accounts.

The 80’s may have been the “greed is good” decade. The 90’s however ushered in the era of no holds bar, unrestrained money lust.

Sales is exciting for most of us because we love the game and love the reward. We hunt for interested contacts, build relationships, negotiate deals, and bring home the revenue. When the deals get bigger, we bask in the glory and admiration of colleagues.

Sales is also the most high risk and high stress of professions. We live and we die quarter by quarter by the number on our backs. When the sales team does not come through, that hits earnings, gets investors on edge, and leads to many uncomfortable business decisions.

I have often said that motivation boils down to incentives. No matter the company, the incentives drive behavior. It starts with revenue goals, which drive quotas and filter all the way down to the individual sales reps.

That pressure can lead to behaviors that live in the ethical gray area. It can be easier to cut corners, hide the flaws, sweep inconvenient truths under the rug, and avoid issues now that will be someone else’s problems later. If you mix ambition and the lure of big commission checks in an environment with few boundaries, the gray area becomes the culture, and nothing is beyond the limits.

This is the trouble that hit high flying startups like Zenefits, Hampton Creek, and Uber in our past decade. In fast growing companies, processes are brittle and incomplete, supervision is lax, and the checks and balances governing activities are ignored. This means it is ultimately up to the employee whether to follow or ignore the rules. When no one is looking, the temptation can lead us to choose the latter.

Integrity is the cornerstone of moral behavior. When no one is watching, integrity is how we navigate the sticky ethical decisions to make the right choices. It is like those experiments with young children alone in a room with a plate of cookies being told not to eat the cookies. But the video clearly shows the struggle and justifications to just swipe a cookie or two. Hopefully as adults, we have a more developed sense of right and wrong.

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Any discussion of authenticity goes hand in hand with integrity. Authenticity relies on building trusted relationships, and those relationships depend on working with honest brokers.  This is especially true in sales where trust is currency and credibility is hard to earn and easy to lose. Even small lies or misstatements can create huge rifts.

Early in my sales career, I would sometimes state things about a product as fact when the reality was I did not know for certain. I wanted to project confidence when the correct course of action was to simply state I don’t know. This bit me hard one time when I got called out by a customer on this and was forever referred to as a “bait and switcher” by her.

Integrity begins with you, your words, and your actions. We have that voice inside our head that shouts at us when we come to an ethical dilemma. This is when you must pause, listen, and think about the consequences. If you are still unsure, talk it out with someone you trust. When the question pops up in your head whether something is right or wrong, it is a clear sign that you are at a crossroads.

Even if you make the right decisions, what about the company you are employed with? The environment matters. If your company signs deals at the “35th of month”, if they sweep harassment claims under the rug, and if “customer first” is more a punchline than practice, it is time to question whether it is the right fit culturally. You are better off finding a workplace that upholds and cherishes integrity.

The good thing about integrity is that it depends on no one else other than yourself and the values that you uphold. The high road is always available to you.

“Integrity is choosing your thoughts and actions based on values rather than personal gain.”

If integrity is our cornerstone for morality, then values are our foundation. Before I jump back to the tactical aspects of being authentic, I am going to talk in more depth on values, both your personal values and that of the company you work for. Both are important because the alignment of values is critical for your long-term success in a company and your professional growth.

Live a life of integrity. All good things in life starts with that one principle. And have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday if you are celebrating.

Thank you and take care!

Mark Birch, Founder of the Enterprise Sales Forum

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