I Can’t Hear You, Your Actions Are Too Loud!

“What most influences your work decisions every day?” I asked a group of scientists in Minneapolis.  “The boss,” one answered. “What they say—especially what they do.”

Everything a leader says and does is scrutinized for meaning, because it assumes importance as a form of communication, often far beyond even what the leader imagines. And we react.

We notice where leaders sit, where they park, what’s first and last on their agendas, questions they ask and questions they don’t ask. We watch their body language. We note their tone of voice and facial expressions. We pay close attention to what they wear, who they promote, who they ignore.

Just what are the behaviors that employees watch in their leaders most?

Based on what employees have told me over the years, there are four that stand out.
1. How you use your time
How you use time signals your priorities. When I’m coaching leaders, I often begin with a calendar review. I ask the leaders to keep track of what they do over the next week or month. We then sort the work into broad categories.

One client, Ben, the CEO of a health care financing company, spent a high percentage of his time talking about the importance of customers. But his employees didn’t think he put much emphasis on customers. His calendar revealed that he spent only about 10 percent of his time with customers or on customer issues.

Ben began managing his calendar more strategically by spending more time with customers. After two months, his management team told me Ben was more focused on customers. “He’s getting his point about the importance of customers across much better.”

What does your calendar say about your priorities?

2. What you take the lead on
“When will you know the company’s serious about cutting costs?” I asked a group of employees gathered around a conference table at a Midwestern retailer.
“When management cuts their costs,” an employee shot back.

I’ve asked the “When will you know…” question more than a hundred times and more than a hundred times, people answer the same: “When the leaders go first.”

By going first, leaders demonstrate their confidence in and commitment to an idea or program. It provides tangible evidence of the leader’s commitment and demonstrates what acceptable and unacceptable behavior is, thereby communicating that others have permission to do the same things.

3. The questions you ask
This is the power of asking and listening.

If you preach the importance of customer satisfaction but always ask people about their production numbers, should you be surprised if they think you put production first and customer satisfaction second?

Many years ago, I was at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Missouri. Irv Hockaday, the CEO, and I were to address a gathering of Hallmarkers, as they call themselves.

Irv spoke about the company’s business strategy and vision, then asked if there was time for questions. However, instead of taking questions from the Hallmarkers, he started asking  questions of them.

His first question: “What do I need to do or stop doing to help you realize your full potential—to be the best you can be? What’s in your way?” He then listened to several Hallmarkers suggest specific things Irv could do to help them. This is part of what’s known as servant leadership.

His second question: “What are our customers saying? What do we need to do to be more responsive to them?” Hallmarkers responded with their suggestions based on talking with customers.

The final question was about business process improvement efforts the company was undertaking. “Are we making our processes faster and more efficient? Is it making it easier for you to do your work?”

Three questions about three values: people, customers and processes. Hallmarkers walked away from Hockaday meetings knowing precisely what’s important to him and what he needs to do to help them succeed on behalf of employees and customers.

Of course, Irv turned the tables and asked the Hallmarkers what questions they had.

4. Who and what you reward and recognize
We like to be rewarded or recognized for our contributions. When we’re clear about what gets rewarded or recognized, we’re clear about what we need to do—what actions we need to take.

When FedEx chairman Fred Smith learns about someone going above and beyond the call of duty to get a package to a customer, he issues a Bravo Zulu recognition to that person. Translated, that stands for “Well Done”.

A 20-year service pin presented with fanfare by a leader communicates that loyalty or length of service is important.

And when a leader gives one of her employees $5,000 for an innovative idea that almost worked but eventually flopped, she’s communicating that it’s O.K. to keep stretching and trying, even if it means that you don’t always succeed.

Business leaders need to consider the messages they send when they appoint people to positions. Does the appointment communicate what should be communicated?

So, dear leader, when you want to make your point, talk about it—but make sure you walk the talk.

Key Takeaway: Your actions speak so loudly I can hardly hear what you’re saying. For more examples of how to become a better leader, download my booklet, Walk the Talk©, a guide to 50 specific actions I’ve seen good leaders do to ensure that what they say and do are consistent with executing their business strategies successfully.

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