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‘Fashionably late’ has no place in business

I learned about being on time at a ripe young age from my father, Jack Mackay. As the head of the Associated Press in my hometown of St. Paul, he lived by deadlines.

I remember when I was 10 years old. My dad said, "Be at the dock at 2 p.m." There was no built-in fudge factor. If you got there at 2:01, you were holding your fishing pole in one hand and waving bon voyage with the other.

Tough love, kid, but it worked.

I joke with people and say, "The only time I’ve been late is when I was born." I wish that were true, but I’m pretty good at being on time or even early, especially if it’s an important event where I don’t want to take any chances of being late. I often bring work with me and camp out in my car until it’s time for my appointment or meeting. And there’s always the phone. I’m in touch with my assistant 24/7, if not in person, then via voicemail or e-mail.

The problem with being early or on time is that often no one is there to appreciate it. We live in a society where it has become acceptable to be late. I’m sure you’ve heard the term "fashionably late." Well, it’s never in fashion to be rude. Making other people wait for you implies your time is more valuable than theirs. That’s never a safe assumption, and it certainly is rude.

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Some people also feel that if you arrive on time, you are seen as a beginner. This kind of thinking drives me nuts. Of course, I prefer to be a beginner — getting things started, off to a good beginning. Being late just delays the joy.

In his book, "Further Up the Organization," the late Robert Townsend identifies a critical characteristic of leadership: "Leaders arrive early and stay late. Non-leaders get in late and usually leave on time."

Setting an example of timeliness goes beyond meetings and appointments. It also means that the leader expects projects to be completed and phone calls to be returned on time. The old saying, "Time is money" is so true. Wasting time, yours or someone else’s, wastes company dollars. Few businesses can afford that budget item.

Punctuality is more than just good manners; it’s a mark of character.

I’ll admit there are a few characters that got away with ignoring the clock. Yogi Berra, former New York Yankee star player and manager, had a habit of not being on time for appointments. Usually, he was about a half-hour late. One time he showed up only 15 minutes behind schedule. Proudly he proclaimed, "This is the earliest I’ve ever been late." But do you think Yogi was ever late for a ballgame?

Set your watch ahead if you must; use an alarm; leave for meetings a few minutes early. Just find a way to be where you are supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there. Otherwise, you may end up in a story like this:

A priest was being honored at his retirement dinner after 25 years in the parish. A leading local politician and member of the congregation was chosen to make the presentation and give a little speech at the dinner. However, he was delayed, so the priest decided to say his own few words while they waited.

"I got my first impression of the parish from the first confession I heard here. I thought I had been assigned to a terrible place. The very first person that entered my confessional told me he had stolen a television set and, when questioned by the police, was able to lie his way out of it. He had stolen money from his parents and embezzled from his employer. I was appalled. But as the days went on, I learned that my people were not all like that and I had, indeed, come to a fine parish full of good and loving people."

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Just as the priest finished his talk, the politician arrived full of apologies at being late and immediately began to give his talk.

"I’ll never forget the first day our parish priest arrived," said the politician. "In fact, I had the honor of being the first person to go to him for confession."

Harvey Mackay is a Minnesota businessman and author.

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