Walking the Talk
“Walk the talk” is an evocative phrase. I use it myself. It brings up images of change leaders who are involved with the change and who lead by example. A visionary leader can set the stage for a change initiative, but every line manager needs to walk the talk to sustain the change. Nonetheless, it is not unusual for managers to hold back or try to delegate leadership.
There are many reasons a manager might back away from an organizational change. Sometimes it is presented as an overlay. The message to the manager is, “your bonus depends on meeting your quota of widgets or software or sales, but you should also support this initiative to improve quality, decrease accidents, or increase productivity.” At other times, the change feels like it is outside the manager’s area of expertise. Managers have risen to their positions because of experience and capability in their fields. They won’t have the same sense of competency leading a change initiative that is outside their own area.
Darlene Flynn is a policy analyst for the City of Seattle Race and Social Justice initiative, which is designed to end race-based disparities in city government. As she describes, “Broad social change like this doesn’t result from merely addressing individual grievances and delivering programs that provide support services to underrepresented communities of color—it requires adjustment to the systems that contribute to inequity in access to society’s resources.” She helps managers from departments across the city recognize how their areas of responsibility, whether in planning or utilities or recreation, can contribute to a future in which every citizen has the opportunity to live up to his or her potential. In fact, these managers have to become leaders in this system-wide change for it to succeed.
Through experiential learning workshops, Darlene works with managers to help them realize that the same management skills that they bring to their areas of expertise also apply to creating social justice. Once the analysis of the system has been completed, and it is clear what areas of the system need changing, their job is good management: making the case for change clear, assuring that everyone knows what is needed and what their role is, and monitoring the results. Periodic assessment of what is working well and what needs some course correction is a task that can be delegated. Once the managers understand the progress, it is important to reward positive results—a task that cannot be delegated. In city government, bonuses are typically off the table, but award ceremonies and thank-you notes are not. They send a clear message of leadership commitment.
Every successful change initiative has many leaders. When implementing a change, managers cannot step away from the initiative and expect to just watch it succeed. The insight and foresight for the future state may come from a visionary leader. But the more people are affected by a change, the more important it is for them to see their managers walk the talk. Good management practice, like evaluating what is needed, monitoring progress, making course corrections, and rewarding success, go a long way toward walking the talk.
About the Author
Dr. Andrea Shapiro
Andrea Shapiro, PhD, is founder and principal of Strategy Perspective. She brings a unique perspective to organizational change based on experience in software development, business modeling, management, and organizational learning and development. Andrea designed and developed the Tipping Point computer simulation, which forms the heart of the Change, Dialogue, and Action Workshop. She has delivered the Workshop to major corporations, non-profits, and government agencies in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and has accredited hundreds of change leaders and consultants to deliver the workshop worldwide in their own work in organizational change. Her book Creating Contagious Commitment gives detailed real-life examples, theory, and background, all of which will appeal to any manager faced with implementing a significant organizational change.
After earning master’s degrees in mathematics and psychology and a doctorate in behavioral decision making, Andrea went on to further studies at the Coaches Institute and the MIT Sloan Business School executive education program in system dynamics. She has also served on the Graduate Faculty at UNC Chapel Hill and taught decision making at Pfeiffer University’s graduate program in organizational management. Andrea can be reached through StrategyPerspective.com or you can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.