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Commit to Agreements, Not Expectations

Imagine it’s your third week on the job. You’re meeting with your team leader about a big project with rapidly approaching milestones, and you learn she’s very impressed with your progress. So much so, in fact, she’d like you to be the project lead accountable for bringing it to completion. Which of the following three approaches would you be most receptive to? 

“These are the milestones I expect to be done by next week.”


“Can we agree to have these milestones completed by next week?”


“Can you meet with the team and let me know if you can agree to take ownership for the project, including the milestones, or if you need to revise any of the deliverables or dates?”

Okay, maybe we’re leading the witness here.

We find it’s so much easier for people to build and maintain high-trust relationships if they do the hard work associated with turning expectations into agreements. What follows from that, of course, is a strong commitment from team members to honor those agreements.

What follows is a summary of the core best practices we believe are associated with what we call agreements-based leadership.

This isn’t a new concept. In his 1998 book Reinventing Yourself: How to Become the Person You've Always Wanted to Be, Steve Chandler explores various ideas related to personal growth and transformation, including the shift from unspoken expectations to clear agreements as a more effective and harmonious way of interacting with others both personally and professionally. This aligns with the principle of effective communication and setting clear objectives, which can be particularly relevant if you want to take your leadership to another level.

Phrases like “set appropriate expectations” or “were expectations met?” are commonplace in everyday business. But here are some issues with expectations:

  • Expectations are disappointing. If they’re not met, all parties are disappointed. On the other hand, if they are met, nobody really celebrates — after all, they only did what was expected of them.
  • Expectations are bullying. The “just do what I said” approach to leadership is a demeaning relic of the past.
  • Expectations are lazy. They convey a lack of willingness to talk about what people, processes, tools, technology, and time are necessary to get the job done.
  • Expectations are cowardly. Knowingly or unknowingly, setting expectations signals that what team members think or feel doesn’t matter — the decision has been made without a conversation.
  • Expectations are unhealthy. When a leader outlines expectations, they’re essentially saying, “This is what needs to be done, and I’m not really interested in what you think on the matter.”

At Ninety, we deeply believe agreements are much better because we enter into them together. Some are small (“Lunch at noon?”), and some are big. Big agreements tend to be accompanied by a lot of conversations around the pros and cons of an idea.

Ideas, of course, are like agreements. They can be small, or they can be big. I like Big Ideas, the origins of what becomes your Vision.

Most well-known entrepreneurs — Bezos, Jobs, Winfrey, and company — love Big Ideas, too. They love their ideas so much that they decided to launch organizations to turn their Big Ideas into reality.

As someone who has invested in more than 100 companies across every single Stage of Development, I can assure you that there’s no single way to get from a Big Idea to a great company.

However, there are best practices to follow. In our experience, great companies create a set of agreements at the leadership team level for the entire organization to follow. We call these Focus Filters — they’re your guiding principles. Whenever you need to make a decision, pass it through your Focus Filters to make sure it’s aligned with your organizational commitments.

Every company aspiring to be great eventually needs to form agreements on the following Focus Filters:Focus Filters_Hand Drawn

Each of these decisions is essential if you want to create a healthy, productive, scalable, and resilient company. These decisions must also become agreements with 100% buy-in from the entire Senior Leadership Team. Certainly, we’ve all seen instances where leaders are not 100% “with the program,” and, more likely than not, that will eat away at the health of that organization. Worse, it makes building a good, let alone great, company harder and harder.

It’s this simple: the sooner your organization’s Focus Filters are explicit, coherent, and resonant, the less involved you and the leaders throughout the organization need to be in day-to-day, week-to-week, and even month-to-month decisions. Things just run smoother.

With agreements in place, we would … expect … you’ll be well on your way to building a great company. Try it, and see if you don’t agree.

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