Why It’s Crucial to Walk the Talk as a Business Leader

“Do as I say, not as I do” might once have worked for both parents and stern bosses, but these days leadership by demand is no longer sufficient.

Modern employees want to see you in action, leading by example. When your actions actively work against the things you say (whether in direct conversation or through the creation or enforcement of company policies), you’re going to be viewed as a problem boss — and maybe even a toxic one.

More importantly, not acting in ways consistent with written policies undercuts your professed commitment. This can come back to bite you in very unpleasant ways. Here are five ways to make sure you “walk the talk” as a business leader.

1. Make sure your policies and ideas are consistent with your core values and beliefs.

It should be obvious but it often gets lost in the crazy shuffle of the day-to-day: It’s really hard to practice what you preach when you don’t believe the sermon in the first place.

Your company’s core values should align with your personal code of ethics. If it doesn’t, you’ll have a hard time both enforcing it and exemplifying it for others.

If you’ve never engaged in the process of clarifying your company’s values, take the opportunity now to do so. These values tend to stay fairly consistent over our lifetimes, barring major or traumatic events, but it’s important to give this process your full attention and involvement. Don’t just write down some cool-sounding phrases. Your corporate values statement should guide the company through its evolution over the coming years.

2. Get clear on what precisely needs to change in your organization.

When there’s a disconnect between company policies and employee behavior, it’s important to clarify the contours of that misalignment as precisely as possible. That’s a key way to know where to concentrate your own personal efforts, as well as any organizational actions that need to be taken.

Take some time to observe your workers carefully for yourself. At the same time, it’s important to seek input from multiple sources for a fuller (and thus more accurate) view of the situation.

For example, if the disconnect concerns customer service, it may seem like an open-and-shut issue if you listen in on a single service call. However, asking a few representatives, their supervisor, and some of your customers may reveal a different cause altogether, perhaps one of design or manufacturing. Without carefully exploring the issue from multiple viewpoints, you might never address the real problem.

3. Model the change in behavior you want to see.

The core of “walking the talk” is to be the change you want to see in your company. In other words, tackle your own behavior first, before communicating these changes to your workforce. That way, you can establish some “street cred” before you ask your employees to take on the new changes too.

Changing habitual practices, routines or behaviors isn’t as easy as simply making a decision, of course. The decision must be supported by conscious attention and effort for some period of time.

People are built to run on habits by default. So many of our decisions that we think are governed by rational thought are actually habitual responses. To change one of those habits, we need to put a lot of effort into making a new set of choices.

Imagine the grooves on a record album. Making the needle follow any other path requires some significant external impact, like someone jumping on the floor nearby or jostling the record player. To wear a “new groove” into your existing album, you’ll need to follow a new path with deliberate, consistent effort until it becomes a habit, too.

4. Communicate those values clearly to affected employees.

The second part of the “walk the talk” equation is communication. Engage in authentic conversations with core people about the policies and changes at issue. Do them the courtesy of listening to them deeply and respecting their contributions to the discussion.

Adopt a core “team” attitude, rather than keeping yourself separate. Don’t set yourself up as an observer of this discussion. Engage in it. Lead it by communicating clearly to the participants what you expect of them, why this change was necessary and how your company will support its employees in making the change.

5. Be consistent in behavior as well as in policy adoption and revision.

When it comes to corporate values, consistency isn’t the hobgoblin of small minds — it’s the essential foundation of successful change. That’s especially true, and important, in your company’s enforcement of sexual harassment and anti-discrimination policies, when failing to follow the policy can subject the business to substantial legal liability.

This also means consistency in your corporate values across the board. If you’re espousing a strict commitment to increasing female executive hires but you look the other way when “beer babes” are hired for executive parties, you’re not demonstrating a consistent commitment to that policy, or its underlying supportive value.

The underlying point here is that actions and words matter and have meaning. Aligning them is all part of living with integrity. This is just as important as anything else if you’d like to build a happier team and a more successful company.


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