Your Words Should Match Your Actions

Over the past few months I’ve watched several powerful and successful VCs and entrepreneurs damage their reputations by having their words not match up with their actions. I think this is especially true in the context of a long term relationship.

This is a deeply held value of mine and of my partners at Foundry Group. I occasionally screw up and when I do I own it, apologize, and learn from it. But it stuns and amazes me when others assert strong style / values / culture and then consistently have their actions not line up with their words.

Here are a few VC examples:

VC asserts he’s “founder friendly”: This is currently in vogue across many VC firms. Very experienced VCs are talking about how they are focused entirely on supporting the entrepreneur. But then, when something goes wrong, they act randomly and capriciously. Or they simply disengage without warning. Or they try to retrade an earlier deal just because they think they can. Or they threaten to veto a deal unless they get something more than they are entitled to.

VC asserts certain followup behavior with every entrepreneur they meet with: In the vein of “we are holding ourselves to a high level of interaction”, the VC suggests a certain behavior pattern in their deal evaluation process or interaction with entrepreneurs. They do this sometimes, but are inconsistent.

VC suggests that the deal is firm and will happen: Then, two weeks into “due diligence” which, based on the previous evaluation, should be a proforma exercise, abruptly pull out of the deal because “some of my partners aren’t supportive.”

This, of course, isn’t limited to VC behavior. I see it all the time with entrepreneurs. For example:

Entrepreneur suggests he’s “radically transparent”: Nice, and popular, but do you tell your employees exactly how many months of cash you have left? Or do you keep the fact that you and your partner are having a major conflict from your investors? Or how about that your business isn’t doing very well and you are working every backchannel you know to try to have an acquihire happen for you that will have a negative impact on your investors.

Entrepreneur asserts he isn’t shopping the deal: And then he does. It’s ok to shop a deal, just don’t assert you aren’t!

Entrepreneur inflates his relationship with another entrepreneur or VC: It’s fine to be connected on LinkedIn or say you worked at the same company in the past, but don’t say you are best friends if you haven’t interacted with the other person in over a year.

I could keep going. It’s similar to what Amy and I wrote about in Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur when we talk about your words having to match your actions. When I tell Amy that she is the most important thing in my life, and then am 30 minutes late to dinner because “I’ve just got to get something done” my words aren’t matching up with my actions. Or, when we are together, the phone rings, and I automatically answer it rather than asking if it’s ok for me to take the call. Or, when she gets hurt if I don’t drop everything I’m doing and go help her out.

Words matter. And having them match your actions matters matters even more.

  • Madhav SBSS

    Great post Brad. Adding on to your note, Thoughts, Words and Actions should all be in sync at all times.

    Disconnect between Words and Actions is evident in the external world as you rightly pointed out, disconnect between Thoughts and the other two (What you think and what you do, What you think and what you say) is only evident to us, within.

    • Well said – nice linkage of Thoughts.

  • What is worse is when your words and deeds match up for a long period of time then you decide to stretch and cross the line in charaterizing a relationship. Easy to fall into this trap on Twitter. I did this a couple weeks back when I mischariterized an introduction from an Austin area investor to Austin area firm when I was working with a short lived startup. When the investor called out me I really felt the sting to my reputation . I quickly took ownership of my mistake but I don’t that person will look at me in the same light.

    Tread conservatively when it comes to your reputation. I wish I had.

    • Great example. I’ve always been fine when someone owns the mistake, so in your case it would have been fine with me (and hopefully the investor that called you at feels the same way.) And – I hope when I screw up and own it (which I do) – people will forgive me.

      • Folks need to remember StartupLand is small. That investor I spoke of is heavily involved at the Austin area startup I am in my second round of interviews with.

  • Stephen Covey defined integrity as making and keeping commitments (to yourself and others).

    I thought was a really nice way to think about it.

  • John Fein

    So true. It’s kind of amazing that companies can create competitive advantage – in Customer Service, Biz Dev, so many areas – by just doing what they say they’re gonna do. Keeping promises and commitments is so underrated. It even ties to product – if it works as advertised/designed. Everyone has the opportunity to build trust, but once they screw it up it’s hard to regain.

  • I like how you’ve taken a swag at the VC, entrepreneur & personal sides as examples, i.e. it covers the 3 facets of a) Who you are, b) Who you deal with, and c) Who you live with/family.

    One could add a 4th category: employees/co-workers.

    Regardless, I’m a proponent of under-promising and over-delivering. I prefer that my actions speak louder than my words.

  • Integrity is the word

  • RE: Radically Transparent – I’m nowhere near as transparent as @RandFish (but he’s the pinacle so likely no one is), but @bfeld:disqus I can’t imagine an entrepreneur not sharing how much cash is left w/ employees or being honest about the real state of the business with them as well. That’s not radical anymore, that’s the standard IMO. Perhaps I’ve learned the hard way, but sharing bad/hard news with your employees and investors is often the best way for all of them to help. Hiding/lying/misleading is a path to ruin in your business and your career.

    • Totally agree, but I see this miss ALL THE TIME with entrepreneurs.

      • Nick Ambrose

        I’ve been there before (twice).

        The first time I managed to trust my gut and get the heck out before the whole thing collapsed (and thankfully I was actually much better off for it).

        The second time I honestly thought it was a joke when the CEO announced “The board has asked me to shut it all down” (as the company had been courting a number of purchasers).

        Thankfully (again) I managed to fall directly into a very lucrative consulting agreement with one of the company’s partners who were in dire need of the project I was on

        Maybe not so surpisingly, the second company is on this list:

        • Wow – that list brings back some memories!

          • Nick Ambrose

            Probably uniformly bad ones!

            On the plus side, I did get to learn a couple (hundred) ways of how not to run a company and a couple (hundred million) ways of how not to spend “someone else’s” money…

    • I don’t believe in being radically transparent. I think that works in certain companies and not in others. I have tried both ways.

      • It’s totally fine not to be radically transparent. What’s important is to be internally consistent. But I expect you know that.

        • Yes, I really liked your comments about Amy. So true. And its the same. There might be a month where you just have to close a deal. Its ok to say if something comes up I am going to be late, the only thing you have to make sure is that never happens for the other 11 months.

          I used to be a chronic late person and had to learn the hard way that is just telling the other person you don’t care about their time, and that yours is much more important.

          I don’t know how to express this well but its like building a bank of reputation. If I am never, ever late to meetings and then I am late people are willing to overlook it.

          My comment was that so many people think you have to say your radically transparent that they just say it. There are cases when it works and cases when it doesn’t.

  • StevenHB

    Others here have said it – you’re describing integrity. I think that most of it believe that other people either have integrity, or they don’t. People of integrity aren’t perfect: they apologize, sincerely, seeking to make amends as you’ve described, when they screw up.

  • Ashish Aggarwal

    Really nice article. I think you capture the integrity aspect and I think it definitely hurts the long term credibility of the person when the person does it again and again. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Dan King


  • Word.

  • NickN

    You’ve been on a profundity roll of late!

  • as the entrepreneurial ecosystem expands, I find I run into a lot of snake charmers.

    • There have ALWAYS been snake charmers in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Nothing new there!

  • This is very key to reputation. I’ve found my business slowly growing over 17 years and by and large I’m doing the same things. But word spreads if your words match your actions. Set expectations, and communicate along the way. Winning combo.

  • I call this ‘doing what you say you’re gonna do’. I try to behave this way + (I think) I mostly succeed. I’m definitely better at it now than 10 yrs ago.

  • RBC