Build a Solid Reputation

“A good name is more desirable than great riches;

to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”

Proverbs 22:1

Content created by Darin Gerdes. Copyright Great Business Networking.
The next section is all about networking, but as I began thinking about networking, I realized that I just jump into the mechanics of networking without exploring a few related concepts first.
Networking is about more then meeting people, collecting business cards, shaking hands, and adding people to your contact list. Practical application is a few lessons away. There are some philosophical concepts, however, that I want you to grasp before you network because, if you understand them, correct actions naturally follow. We will talk about reputation, adding value, reciprocity, and why networking is important before we examine methods.
We begin with reputation because, according to Chris Komisarjevsky, author of The Power of Reputation:
Reputation is your most important asset . . . First of all, we own our reputation. Whether or not we feel we deserve it, the responsibility for the views of us that have taken shape in other people’s minds falls on us and us alone. When we take responsibility, when we ‘own’ our reputation—that is the moment we can do something about it, when we can begin to consciously shape it.
Second, as an asset, reputation has an exchange value. Engage in active exchanges based on our reputation—either attracting business, attention, or support from those around us, or repelling it.[1]
But First, Some Lawyer Jokes
A 50-year-old lawyer who had been practicing since he was 25 years old died and arrived at the pearly gates of heaven. The lawyer said to St. Peter, “I am surprised I died so young. I was very active and always ate well. And I’m only 50 years old!”
St. Peter looked at his book and looked back down at the lawyer. “Fifty years old, you say? According to your billing records, you should be 83.”
The tooth fairy, an honest lawyer, and an expensive, dishonest lawyer are in the same room. There is a $500 bill on a table in the room. When they leave, the money is gone. Who took it?
A: Since there is no such thing as the tooth fairy, the answer is obvious.
Why does California have the most lawyers and New Jersey the most toxic waste dumps?
A: New Jersey had first choice!
What’s black and brown and looks good on a lawyer?
A: Two dobermans!
What’s the difference between a lawyer and a snake run down on the highway?
A: Skid marks in front of the snake.
What do you call 100 lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean?
A: A good start.
How do you know when a lawyer is lying?
A:  Her lips are moving.
How do you tell the difference between a lawyer and a catfish?
A: One wallows in the mud and is a blood- sucking scavenger — the other is a fish!
Q: How many lawyers does it take to change a light bulb?
A1: How many can you afford?
A2: Fifty-four. Eight to argue, one to get a continuance, one to object one to demur, two to research precedents, one to dictate a letter, one to stipulate, five to turn in their time cards, one to depose, one to write interrogatories, two to settle, one to order a secretary to change the bulb, and twenty-eight to bill for professional services.[2]
Why are lawyer jokes so common? Similar jokes based on any other demographic would be decried as insensitive and unacceptable. Naïve college freshman would be marching in protest of such hostile language targeting a particular class of people, but there’s a near universal acceptance of lawyer jokes. Could it be that lawyers have earned a well-deserved reputation for dishonesty? Even Jesus fought with lawyers.[3]
Character and Reputation
Your reputation will be critical to your success in business. It’s the type of thing that takes a lifetime to build, but it can be destroyed with one bad decision. Your reputation should be a reflection of your character.  In Who You Are When No One’s Looking, Bill Hybles wrote:
Character, a wise person once said, is what we do when no one is looking. It is not the same as reputation—what other people think of us. It is not the same as success or achievement. Character is not what we have done, but rather who we are.[4]
Let me restate that, because this is a critical point. Character is not the same as reputation. It is the foundation on which your reputation should be built. Coach John Wooden wrote, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”[5]
When I speak of your reputation in this lesson, I am really speaking to your character too. If your reputation and character are misaligned, eventually, your character will come through. You may not believe that others can tell, but they are smarter than you think.
Here is a good test to determine whether your character and reputation are aligned: if you spend a disproportional amount of your time on image management (e.g., trying to present yourself in a particular light to others around you), you may have an alignment issue. If you would be uncomfortable with all of your business dealings being exposed to public scrutiny, you have an alignment issue. If you have an alignment issue, you need to work on character, not reputation. As D. L. Moody once wrote, “If I take care of my character, my reputation will take care of itself.”[6]
Character vs. Reputation
All other things being equal, most of us would rather not do business with a thief or a liar.  We even choose brands that exemplify the values that we hold dear. For example, one corporation inscribed these values into its corporate Code of Ethics:

  • RESPECT:We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness, and arrogance don’t belong here.
  • INTEGRITY:We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly and sincerely. When we say we will do something, we will do it; when we say we cannot or will not do something, we won’t do it.
  • COMMUNICATION:We have an obligation to communicate. Here, we take the time to talk with one another…and to listen. We believe that information is meant to move and that information moves people.
  • EXCELLENCE:We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do. We will continue to raise the bar for everyone. The great fun here will be for all of us to discover just how good we can really be.[7]

Wouldn’t you like to work with people who held these values? I would. Unfortunately, this was Enron’s Code of Ethics. The next paragraph read:
Enron stands on the foundation of its vision and values. Every employee is educated about the Company’s vision and values and is expected to conduct business with other employees, partners, contractors, suppliers, vendors, and customers keeping in mind respect, integrity, communication, and excellence. Everything we do evolves from Enron’s vision and values statements.[8]
Yet, the problem at Enron was not that they had the wrong values, but that they didn’t live their values. Too often there is a difference between the stated values (e.g., those on the wall) and our operational values (e.g., those we actually practice). This is the difference between character and reputation. It is why some brands are bywords and others thrive. The same principles are at work whether we are talking about corporations or individuals. Jeff Bezos said, “A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person.”[9]
I know of a department manager, for example, who told his people that a missing employee “took a job at another company in another state” when all of his co-workers knew that the manager fired him and his financial situation forced him to go live with his in-laws. Everyone knew that he lied and they wondered about the temperament of a manager who thought that they were so gullible. Perhaps he thought he was rendering the employee a kindness by helping him save face, but in the process he undermined his own integrity. Playing fast and loose with the truth is a sure way to undermine credibility.
At the root of the problem is a self-destructive willingness to trade our long-term reputation for short-term gain. You may be able to get away with it one time, but it is a terrible strategy if you have to work with these people again. There are reasons that we loathe lawyers, politicians, and used car salesmen.
Character Supports Reputation
In The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner wrote that, “When people talk to us about the qualities they admire in leaders, they often use ‘integrity’ and ‘character’ as synonymous with honesty.”[10]  Honesty is the number one trait that people look for in leaders.[11] You must not let any form of dishonesty forms cracks in the foundation, or the Reputation you have been building may crumble.
I had a professor in college who was a West Point graduate (Class of 1958) who often told a story about a fellow student with what appeared to be a minor character defect. In a math class, he got a problem wrong, but rather than own up and take the reduction of points, he discreetly moved the decimal point. His instructor caught him and he was expelled from West Point, losing a full-ride scholarship to one of the most prestigious institutions in the country.
Was this overkill? Not when you consider that his lack of integrity might place his soldiers’ lives may be in jeopardy. Exposing this character defect at West Point may have saved lives in Korea and Vietnam.
In Leaders Eat Last, Simon Senik told a similar story of a young Marine who fell asleep during a training exercise at Officer Candidate School (OCS). He was expelled from the program, not because he fell asleep, but because he did not immediately take responsibility for his actions. Senik wrote,
‘It has nothing to do with his falling asleep,’ said the colonel. ‘When we asked him about it, he denied it. When we asked him about it again, he denied it again. Only when we showed him irrefutable proof did he say, ‘I’d like to take responsibility for my actions.’ The problem we have,’ said the colonel, ‘is that taking responsibility for one’s actions must happen at the time you perform your actions, not at the time you get caught.’[12]
Such a willingness to take responsibility is at the core of character and it is as true in business as it is in the military. Senik concluded:
When we suspect the leaders of the company are saying things to make themselves or the company look better than they are or to avoid humiliation or accountability, our trust in them falters. It is a natural response. Our brain interprets the information we receive with our survival in mind. If we suspect our leaders are bending the truth to favor their own interests, then our subconscious mind prefers we don’t climb into a foxhole with them.
Another Marine also fell asleep during the same exercise at OCS. He owned up to it immediately and was given an appropriate punishment. From a leadership perspective, the Marines have no problem with him. He made a mistake, and that’s fine. He was honest and took responsibility for his actions immediately. Leadership, the Marines understand, is not about being right all the time. Leadership is not a rank worn on a collar. It is a responsibility that hinges almost entirely on character.[13]
Coach wooden said, “I believe ability can get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there.”[14] What is your real character? Have you done anything in any business transaction where you have been deceptive (e.g., lied, cheated, fudged numbers, added one-sided legal language that the other party did not agree to)? If so, you may enjoy a reputation that’s better than you deserve. Or, perhaps you think you enjoy a reputation that you do not actually have. Everybody sees through your duplicity and it’s causing you to lose business.
Whatever your situation, get to the root of the issue. Focus on character and build a solid reputation on a firm foundation.
Actionable items:
What do you think is your reputation in the your business network?
Now, this is a more important question. What is your real character? Be honest. No one is reading this but you.
End Notes
[1] Komisarjevsky, C. (2012). The power of reputation: Strengthen the asset that will make or break your career. New York: American Management Association. (p. 5)
[2] Bad lawyer jokes (2016). Extremely Smart Humor. Retrieved from
[3] See Luke 11: 37-54
[4] Hybels, B. (1987). Who you are when no one’s looking. Eastbourne: Kingsway Publication. (p. 14).
[5] Williams, P., & Wimbish, D. (2006). How to be like coach Wooden: Life lessons from basketball’s greatest leader. Deerfield Beach, Fla: Health Communications. (p. 5).
[6] Maxwell, J. C. (2010). The Complete 101 Collection. Nashville, Tenn: Thomas Nelson. (p. 274).
[7] Enron’s Code of Ethics. (2000). University of New South Wales. Retrieved from
[8] Enron’s Code of Ethics. (2000). University of New South Wales. Retrieved from
[9] Covey, S. M. R., & Merrill, R. R. (2006). The speed of trust: The one thing that changes everything. (p. 269).
[10] Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2003).  Leadership practices inventory (LPI) self starter package (3rd Ed).  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (p. 27)
[11] Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2003).  Leadership practices inventory (LPI) self starter package (3rd Ed).  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (p. 24)
[12]  Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t.
(p. 149).
[13]  Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t.
(p. 149).
[14] Williams, P., & Wimbish, D. (2006). How to be like coach Wooden: Life lessons from basketball’s greatest leader. Deerfield Beach, Fla: Health Communications. (p. 5).