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Reputational harm

Reputational harm

I have been running a business for nearly 20 years.

In the early days there was a lot of friction and hard graft involved in landing clients. We were an unknown entity, full of confidence but without much of track record to support that confidence.

Our first couple of engagements were down to opportunism and desperation on the part of the client. When a pitch meeting begins with “can you start now?” you know you are in a pretty strong negotiating position!

My approach to successfully running a business is pretty simple: Never promise more than we can deliver. And we deliver what we promise. Always.

Before long we no longer had to compete for work. Most engagements came via word of mouth recommendations, either from past clients or people we had worked with on previous projects.

Have skills, will travel

During the first few years, we took on whatever projects we thought we could successfully deliver, including:

  • A telecom billing system in Stockholm.
  • A fraud detection solution in Copenhagen.
  • Real-time vote counting for reality television programs in London.
  • Investment research content and interest matching capability in Tokyo.
  • Rescuing a failed 9/11 disaster recovery effort in New York, ensuring business continuity.
  • Behavioural economics remuneration incentive monitoring study in Melbourne.

The work was varied and interesting.

The more we delivered, the broader our network of people wanting to work with us again became.

Our reputation grew.

Opportunities snowballed, there was more work than we could do.

Build reputation

Opportunities presented themselves as our reputation grew.

Go big, go home, or become choosey

This forced a strategic decision:

  • Expand to meet the demand?
  • Sell out, accepting one of the unsolicited acquisition offers we had started receiving from larger firms?
  • Keep doing what we had been successfully doing?

It was our hard-won reputation that provided these opportunities. Clients engaged us because they knew they could rely on us to make their problem go away. At a fair price.

Create value

Creating value for our clients built our reputation. Image credit: CafeMom.

Not too hot, not too cold, just right

The business had reached a happy medium in terms of size.

Large enough that I had good people reliably doing great work.

Small enough that I still knew what was going on day to day. This meant I could our clients got what they needed (which is not always the same thing as what they thought they wanted!) without any nasty surprises.

I could even lend a hand doing the fun stuff occasionally. That said, I suspect everyone was happier when I concentrated on my job running the business and left those far smarter than me to do the doing!

Decisions, decisions…

I could have scaled out, becoming one of those horrible soulless big consultancies that promise the world, yet underdelivers. Overbudget. And late.

Or sold out to the same.

However the reason we had been successful was we had built a reputation of providing clients with an alternative to the big consultancy experience that inevitably left them feeling like they had been screwed with their pants on.

Reputation is hard to build.

Reputation is easy to lose.

I chose the third option.

This allowed me to pick the most interesting projects from the menu of available opportunities, a pattern that I continue to apply to this day.

Reputation is like a magnet

Another area where the business benefited greatly from having a good reputation was recruitment and retention. We actively sought out great workers who wanted to do interesting work, needed bespoke working arrangements, yet wanted to be paid fairly.

The guy who loved hiking. He would work six months of the year for us, then head off trekking to far-flung places like the Himalayas, New Zealand or Patagonia for the remainder of the year.

The young mother with a new baby (and subsequently several more), who sought a rapid return to the workforce, but needed a job forgiving of the endless series of nursery sniffles and tummy bugs that babies and toddlers seem to attract.

The functional alcoholic with amazing technical skills, but a self-destructive tendency to enter poker tournaments, win big before eventually losing, then disappearing for days at a time on a bender to drown his sorrows.

A good reputation will attract opportunities like a magnet. A bad reputation will see people avoiding you like the plague.

Reputational harm

Despite the “right to be forgotten”, for the most part memories are long and the internet is forever.

Don’t believe me?

What is the first thing you think about when you hear the name Monica Lewinsky? I’m betting it isn’t the great work she does raising awareness about cyberbullying?

How about Lance Armstrong? It probably isn’t that he raised $300 million to support cancer victims.

Chappaquiddick? How many people thought of a sleepy island off Martha’s Vineyard, rather than the scandal more than 50 years ago involving a Kennedy?

Audience participation

Now do an ego search on Google using your own name.

Are you satisfied with what is returned?

Stand behind all the things you have said or are associated with?

The Google cache and Wayback Machine ensure every public utterance we have ever written down is recorded for posterity. If there is anything you wouldn’t be content seeing printed in poster-sized writing on the side of the number 23 bus, don’t write it down!

Australia has a national pastime called the “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. The easily led masses (the tabloid newspaper and gossip magazine readers, the talkback radio listeners, the social media followers) love nothing more than when a successful person who has risen above their peers comes crashing back down to Earth with an ego-bruising reputational harm inducing thud.

Don’t be a dickhead

How many people would be sympathetic when the subject of an article titled something like “I’m an [obnoxious bellend] millionaire. Here’s how I got so rich” or “How I retired at [some implausible age] with three young kids while earning minimum wage” slips up and gets caught in a lie, or a scandal, or goes bankrupt?

How many will cheer?


Who will cheer when they slip up, are caught in a lie, or go bankrupt? Image credit: Citizen Brick.

Reputation is a double-edged sword. It is capable of providing marvellous opportunities to those who treat people fairly, and do what they say they will do.

Reputational harm will certainly hold back those who troll, gloat, boast or generally treat people shabbily.

Remember that it doesn’t cost anything to be nice, and nobody likes a dickhead.

Next Steps

  • Perform an ego search on your name, then make your peace with what comes back.
  • If you liked this post then please share it with your friends.
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