Walk the talk

  • Date:01 Sep 2014
  • Type:Company Director Magazine
When it comes to corporate values, Karen Gately believes actions speak louder than words.

Managing culture is about influencing the attitudes and behaviours prevalent in your business. Common to the approach many organisations take is defining corporate values to which people are expected to align their approach. 

The purpose of core values is to communicate the specific attitudes, beliefs and behaviours considered most important to the success of your business. They provide a powerful reference point for what is desirable, beneficial, important and ultimately accepted.

All too often, however, the values organisations espouse fail to have any real effect on the way people go about their work. At the heart of the issue is a lack of real and visible leadership from the top. Taking a lead role in driving the creation of culture is a critical priority for any leader of a business. There is no question that success is intimately related to the degree of ownership embraced by every leader beginning with the board of directors.

“Walking the talk” is about turning words into action. Unless the priorities leaders set, decisions they make and actions they take demonstrate the organisation’s values, they will have little impact. As the age old saying goes “actions speak louder than words”.

Espousing values that are not clearly and consistently supported frustrate people and often cause them to disengage. Perceived as broken promises, unfulfilled values are a constant reminder that the organisation promised to be better than it is today.

Make values really matter
For values to have any real impact on the culture of a business, you can’t just say they matter; they need to really matter. It can be easy to advocate the values people should demonstrate, but any real impact on culture is driven by alignment between your actions and your words.

Start with the board
As leaders of leaders, the board has ultimate influence and responsibility. Priorities held and decisions made by the board have a profound effect on the extent to which behaving in line with corporate values is taken seriously.  Expectations of CEOs’ own behaviour and whether or not they are held accountable for creating a successful workplace culture is key. Boards which accept inappropriate conduct from the CEO or allow unacceptable management behaviour to go unaddressed are ultimately responsible for failed efforts to create a successful culture.

Hold every leader accountable
Every leader must be expected to showcase what it means to behave in line with the organisation’s values. That may mean putting in effort, demonstrating a positive attitude, dealing with conflicts constructively or helping a colleague get a job done. For values to become entrenched, people need to see their leaders consistently display aligned behaviours. For example, people are far more likely to go above and beyond if they observe leaders doing the same. It’s important to remember that when you lead by example, you create a picture not only of what’s desirable but also of what’s possible.

Take action
Talking without doing is a common reason values remain aspirational as opposed to a reflection of the ways things are done. Too much time is spent talking about values that are important, behaviours that are expected, the role of managers, right steps to take and so on. Often, however, too little focus and energy is invested in getting on with having the conversations, making the decisions and taking action to ensure people behave in ways that enable success. Little or nothing is gained from articulating core values and expected behaviours unless you are willing to hold people accountable for them.

Reward carefully
Among the most important things you can do to walk your talk is to reward only the behaviours you want more of. All too often leaders reward people who achieve certain goals but behave badly. Common examples include rewarding sales people for reaching their targets despite negative effects they have on the rest of the team. Or rewarding project managers who achieve project outcomes, but go about it in ways that undermine the health and wellbeing of other people. It’s critical that you choose to reward only people who consistently demonstrate aligned behaviours, no matter how impressive the results they achieve.

Promote well
No one should ever be appointed to a leadership role unless they operate in ways consistent with the culture you want to create or maintain. This applies to the decisions that are made about who to appoint to director roles as much as it does to other leadership positions at any level of the organisation’s hierarchy. The decisions made about who is appointed to leadership roles send clear messages about what is ultimately considered successful behaviour. The approach a new leader takes before and following his or her appointment showcases the values that truly matter.