Trust, but verify. This is a Russian proverb that US President Ronald Reagan learned and used frequently when speaking about the Soviet Union and nuclear arms reduction verification in the 1980s. I use it quite a bit too – and when delivered with good comedic timing – it can be quite funny. Trust people. But don’t be so naive to trust them entirely. Verify, just to make sure.

This expression lines up nicely with my world view. As a consultant, I have the privilege to work with motivated, smart, resourceful, and prideful professionals. They hustle to get it done right. Trust, but verify has worked well for me in my career.  This weekend it was a fail.

Ooops. As a good dose of real estate investor humility, look at the landscaping mess below. I hired someone to install new sod in the backyard of a new rental property, and it is a disaster. It was not meant to be this way. I used this vendor before. Gave high-level instructions. Obviously, this “trust, but verify” approach did not work. Too Pollyanna.


1) Two kinds of sod, one is yellow and dried out looking

2) Not enough sod – look where he ran out at the bottom right

3) To compensate, he made the mulch beds HUGE. Who needs 7 foot wide mulch beds with no bushes? Arrgh. Time is money, and this is a time-suck.

For this vendor, expectations were not clear enough. As a result, I am currently un-messing-up this situation with him on the phone, and round 2 of work. Not fun for me, or for him. Over the last 48 hours, I had a few phone calls and text messages with the vendor. He agreed to come back and trouble-shoot. He will likely loose money on the deal and the damage is already done. The chances of us using him again are low/none.  Lose-lose.

What does this have to do with consulting? Consultants are vendors and any purchase of services has this margin for error. Understandably – it’s not usually this ugly, but lawsuits against consultants are not rare. It makes me reflect on my lessons learned:

Set expectations. People are all different. Different education, up-bringing, experiences, motivation and situational pressures. No one comes to work planning to do a crappy job – and yet – what they consider acceptable is not necessarily what the client expects. Lesson:

  • Get ahead of this problem. Communicate the what and why.
  • Meet in person, walk through the place.  Gemba. Go where the action is
  • Don’t be lazy. It takes a real relationship before you can expect teamwork
  • Create the right incentives.  We pay X when 80% complete, 20% upon satisfaction.

Get it on paper. People forget. I joke, “If it is not written down in email, or text, I will deny we ever had this conversation.” Sounds like a political candidate – but it is true – you have to write things down. Consultants call this a SoW, and while this lawn project was not a $___,___ project, text messages and phone conversations only go so far.

  • Meet with the vendor and write things down; even meeting minutes
  • Get a few bids; clients put their consultants (even favorite ones) up to RFP
  • Break out the deliverables, activities, milestones in detail; Get to the Yes

Take the high road. Build trust. I am good at this part – showing vendors that I want them to be successful. Painting a vision of how we can work together more in the future. Putting a human voice to the name, and getting them excited about the work.

  • “Let’s do a good job here, so we can do more work in the future”
  • “I am trying to do _______ (what), so that we will be able to ______(why)”
  • “Anything you need from me? Can I get lunch for you and your guys?”

Let people earn trust. For this vendor, I used him 2x before and it was okay. However, I trusted him too much, too early, without clear-enough expectations. This high-touch approach kind of failed.

Don’t be a sucker. Ease into vendor relationships. Let vendors earn your business. Don’t rush in. Foolish, I know. Feel like the kid who talks about marriage on a 1st date = stupid.

Set expectations, trust, but verify.  For me, setting clear expectations is the lesson learned. Even smart, trustworthy people will let you down if they are unclear on expectations. Yes, trust people . . but set them up for success by clarifying what success looks like . . draw it out, write it down, be specific.  Then trust.  Then verify.

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