Bad, Bad Words

June saw us wrapping up a successful seminar month. The final session, the one called Cash Rules! raised an interesting discussion. A discussion about words that no self-respecting CEO or E.D. should ever use. Here, let me explain…


The conversation, it was getting heated.
It was a quarrel. A brouhaha.
It was all of that. Because of one silly word.
The word rich.

It was two people talking about an acquaintance—a third person not even present—and arguing whether he was (or was not) rich.
One person, the one taking the affirmative, saying, “Yes he is rich! He has money! Lot’s of it!
The other, the denier, complaining, “Aw c’mon! How can he be rich? He has a normal job, no better than yours or mine.

I sat back and watched. Enjoying the show; adding nothing.
All the while wondering whether either one, at some point, would pause and reflect.
And lay down some ground rules.
The first rule, the essential one, being, Hang on! let’s stop for just a moment, and let’s define that word, “rich”.
But no one did, and the debate ragged on, until I lost interest.

They’re big words, weighty words, important ones. They’re used every day, by a lot of people.
Rich, money, success, wealthy
And yet not one of those words—not one—has a clear meaning.
What they share, though, is a subtlety of interpretation. They mean different things to different people.

Like the end of the rainbow—and its mythical pot of gold—those words are hard to pin down.
And like that pot of gold, we all dreamily envision their fulfillment—ah, one day I’ll be rich! Oh yeah, I’ll have money. I’ll be wealthy and successful!
And then most of us, all too sadly, decide that money and wealth and success, just like the end of the rainbow, are easier to talk about than to attain.

You know what’s funny about those words? Those words like money and wealth and rich? There’s a word for them. Yeah, I’m serious.
And that word is nominalization.
Nominalizations are abstractions. You can’t pick any of them up and put them in the trunk of your car. They’re intangibles. They describe something vague, something fuzzy. Something mythical, almost.
I was going to say they’re like a unicorn. But that would be wrong. Because, we all know what a unicorn looks like, and we all know it doesn’t exist.

But rich people, successful people? Oh they exist all right. And some of them might (or might not) be your sister, your neighbour, your friend.
And that’s all well and good. Debating the wealth of a common acquaintance. That’s all well and good.
And harmless too.
Nominalizations, in casual conversations, are pretty harmless, so long as no one starts flinging mud. Or throwing furniture around.

But let me tell you where I take exception. Let me explain where nominalizations don’t belong.

In your organization!

Business owners! Executive Directors! Please tell me. Do you ever say?
When we have money, we’ll hire another employee.
When we’re successful, we’ll move into bigger space.
We can’t compete against them, they’re richer than we are.

If you do use words like that, please consider, what do they mean?
What does it mean to say, When our organization has enough money?
What, exactly, is enough money?

What I’m getting at is, you cannot drive an organization with nominalizations.
Organizations need objectives, solid goals, hard targets. Actual numbers.
And your job (well, at least one of them) is to set those numerical targets, communicate them, make them real.

My message, in fact, is simple.
Don’t chase rainbows. You know, as we all do, that that pot of gold isn’t there.
Establish a revenue target, a cash-flow target, a bottom-line target.
And then,
Write those numbers down, make them visible, make them crystal clear.
And then,
Financially manage your organization with those targets front of mind.

As for nominalizations,
Well, just for fun, ask your neighbour whether she thinks your other neighbour is rich.

To learn more about nominalizations, check out my book here. If you’d like to learn more about the Cash Rules! workshop please click here.