“It’s lonely at the top.” This old expression evokes an image of the single, decisive leader at the top of the pyramid. He hoards knowledge and authority while barking orders to subordinates who carry them out without question—like cogs in a machine. This model may have been effective when businesses and products were simpler, and competition was local or national but not global. Today, the top of the hierarchy simply cannot hoard all the know-how for an organization to make a successful product or service. Modern leadership is about direction and vision. It is more about what to do, and less about how to do it.
Leading a change initiative is no different. In May, I posted a blog entry about the seven levers of change. One of the levers deals with leading by example. I often call it “walk the talk.” Walking the talk doesn’t mean doing all the work to make the initiative happen or micro-managing those who do; it also doesn’t mean handing the initiative off to an expert and waiting for results. It starts with an inspiring vision of where the change initiative will take the organization. This includes a vivid picture of what success will look like, a basic roadmap of how to get there, plus continuing and consistent leadership participation and oversight along the way.
Any change initiative requires new behaviors—new ways of working. Leaders who model those behaviors give credibility to the initiative. Take the example of a manufacturer who started a comprehensive safety initiative following an accident that nearly caused fatalities. Most employees understood the importance of safety. They were making great strides integrating safer processes into their work when the plant manager was cited for a safety violation. It was not a serious violation, and he could have easily exempted himself from the remedial safety lecture required for violators. His attendance at the lecture reinforced the seriousness the manufacturer was placing on safety and sent a clear signal of commitment to the safety initiative.
On the other hand, uninvolved managers who fail to communicate undermine any change program. Listening is often the first and most important step in communication. Leaders who listen are showing respect, which is often reciprocated—toward both leader and the program. Without respect, followership can falter. For example, a call center was mandated to improve quality. Front-line employees had lots of ideas about getting to callers’ underlying concerns earlier and using employee expertise more efficiently. Instead of listening to their ideas, managers handed them a checklist, told them to cover every item in the list on every call, and limit the time per call. Employees’ know-how and experience with customers was completely ignored. An opportunity for collaboration that would have made a stronger quality initiative was completely missed. Routinizing calls was a divisive decision that didn’t address quality and undermined support for the whole program.
“Walk the talk” is not only about knowing what needs to change and setting the direction. It means leading the way. It balances making the case for change clear, modeling the new behaviors, and leveraging employee know-how. It’s a level of commitment that signals the importance of the change. Without it, employees are hard-pressed to believe the change is more than another passing fad.