Pencil Whipping

Pencil Whipping by Dr. Robert Gerwig

Photo by Author

“Trust me. We know what you mean. We’ll add it to the contract later.” … Part of me, a small part, was tempted to sign the contract and move on. After all, we’d been living in temporary housing for three months and I wanted a place of my own. I wanted to be done with the whole thing. I didn’t wanna think about it any more.

It was simple; all I had to do was sign the contract and trust that a handful of key changes would be part of an amended contract to be signed at a later date. Sign the contract and the house was ours. I could rest easy. No more living out of my suitcase. I could have Internet access. Cable TV. A place to which people could mail packages (eg balikbayan boxes). All I had to do was “trust them” and sign.

A caveat upfront. There are times (hopefully many), when you should trust someone. When a contract isn’t necessary. When a firm handshake is sufficient. Not everything needs to be “in writing.”

This article isn’t about THOSE times. This article is about those times when you need to read the “fine print.” When you’re signing a binding contract. A purchase order. A mortgage. A loan. This is about those times when the situation (or a person) dictates that something be put in writing (hardcopy and/or electronic). In cases like this, the world-class leader must avoid “pencil whipping” – taking the short-cut and signing without reading. Without understanding. … Don’t give in to the temptation. Don’t do it!

By my nature, I’m a trusting person. I see the best in people. I’m a half-full type of person. Maybe even a bit naïve. Yet when it comes to signing my name to a document or giving an electronic approval to something, I’m a bit anal retentive. A stickler. I read the fine print. Why? I‘ve been burned. I’ve seen others burned. Your name, Your approval – these are precious. They are tied to your reputation. You are accountable for what you sign. Liable. … Don’t pencil whip.

The SAP business analyst was looking over my shoulder, “just click the approve button right there.” Though this was a “training” session, I was a click away from approving a real purchase order (PO) for several hundred thousand dollars. “What is it I’m approving?,” I asked. “Just a minor change to an existing PO,” she replied. … When I told her I wasn’t approving the PO until I could see it AND read it AND understand what I was approving, she was stunned. No one in my position (for the last 11 years anyway) had ever asked to actually see these “revised” POs before signing as they’d already been approved. … When I clicked on the link that was supposed to pull up the documentation, it was “dead.” Nothing happened. I did not approve the PO. No pencil whipping from me. … Two days later, documentation link fixed (and after reading/understanding/agreeing), I approved the PO.

During the course of this event, I told several people that I would not sign or approve documents I couldn’t read or understand. Ain’t gonna happen. If you don’t want me to read/understand (and agree with) what I’m signing/approving, then take me out of the decision-making loop. But if I’m going to sign my name or approve something, I wanna know. No pencil whipping.

Yes, it requires time and a degree of discipline. Yes, it reduces risk, alleviates stress, and prevents some stupid decisions. … Over the years, I’ve found errors. Some minor, like typos. Others big, like an extra 0 or two on a figure (eg $100,000 instead of $1,000). If it’s worth my signature, I wanna know what I’m signing. And yes, not everything needs my approval. I believe in aligning decisions in the organization to the appropriate level. But if it comes across my desk, my in-basket, or my inbox and needs my signature or approval, I’m gonna check it out first.

I got out of temporary housing. I enjoyed the fast Internet access, cable TV, and sleeping on my own sheets at night. And yes, I required the contract to be “right” BEFORE I signed. Now, I’m resting easy. No stress. Reduced risk. Upfront effort = reduced stress/risk later.

Pencil whipping is fast and, at times, tempting. But don’t do it! It’s a lazy man’s easy way out. It will, at some point, bite you. Take the time to know what you’re signing.

Do you need to “break the pencil” in any areas of your life?

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

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