Walking the Talk Can Be a Cliché – How Do You Make It a Reality?

Empty Pair of Shoes WalkingAny transformational change requires the support of senior leadership. They have to demonstrate the culture they’re building by reflecting it in their daily actions.

Today’s post is by Kay Kendall, author of Leading the Malcolm Baldrige Way (CLICK HERE to get your copy).

The first category in the Baldrige Excellence Framework is “Leadership,” with the emphasis on the senior leaders. We have often remarked that organizational transformation cannot be successful if it’s being led from the middle. All eyes of the organization are on the senior leaders to assess whether their personal actions and behaviors match the words about the change that is being promoted.

In our interviews with more than fifty senior leaders of more than thirty Baldrige Award or Baldrige-based award recipients, this fact was reiterated by nearly everyone with whom we spoke. These senior leaders emphasized the need to personally demonstrate the organization’s values in highly visible ways. Scott McIntyre, Managing Partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers Public Sector Practice, talked about his participation in teaching part of New Employee Orientation. He told us, “It’s easy to talk about what you will or won’t do because of our values. I give very specific examples where short-term opportunities have been foregone to stick to our values.” In a highly competitive and crowded marketplace, having the senior-most leader telling new employees about turning away revenue to remain true to the organization’s values is very powerful.

We also had examples where senior leaders demonstrated their commitment to the organization and its values when faced with very tough times. Paul Worstell, retired CEO of PRO-Tec Coating Company, described the precipitous downturn his organization faced in September 2008 with the near collapse of the automotive industry – a the company’s sole customer base. Utilization of its production capacity plummeted from a record 115 percent to less than 40 percent. The company had never had a layoff, and Paul and his senior leaders were committed to maintaining that accomplishment. They were very open in communicating the stark situation to their employees and appealed to them to come up with ideas for cost savings, which they did enthusiastically. The company also eliminated all outsourcing. People who had been working on the production lines took over security, grounds keeping, and other tasks. Paul personally demonstrated his commitment by taking on the job of cleaning the men’s restroom on the second floor of the administration building. The company operated in this austere fashion for more than eight months and didn’t lay off a single employee.

When organizations adopt improvement methodologies such as lean, six sigma, or some customized approach, it is critical that the senior leaders are knowledgeable about them, developing a facility in using them, and participating in related activities. Jack Welch demonstrated this when GE launched its six sigma program. He quickly announced that henceforth directors and above would be expected to be at least certified six sigma Black Belts. At Mary Greeley Medical Center, senior leaders and physicians regularly participate in Rapid Improvement Events.

One of the challenges for senior leaders can be getting all of the other senior leaders on board with a transformational change. Those who we interviewed had various ways of dealing with this challenge. Some exercised a great deal of patience until the resistant senior leaders came around. Others were more direct and wasted little time in helping those leaders find other opportunities – in other organizations. However, everyone concluded that the transformation would not be possible if even one senior leader was demonstrating by his or her actions a lack of buy-in. It wasn’t sufficient for the resistant senior leader to talk the party line. Employees are looking for their own signals of whether to get on board with a change, and they scrutinize the behavior of those at the top very closely.

I once worked in an organization where the senior leaders communicated in large forums about their commitment to the values. However, the cynical employees referred to them as our “laminated values,” only evident on our badge tags and posted on conference room walls. In fact, as the phrase “walk the talk” began to show up more regularly in management publications, we joked that our leaders couldn’t even “stumble the mumble.” Clearly, this is not the kind of environment or organizational culture that leads to high performance and customer loyalty.

So, how do you walk the talk? What about your other senior leaders?

What behavior do you tolerate in your organization that is inconsistent with your values?

And most importantly, what would your employees say? How do you know?

Leading the Malcolm Baldrige Way– Kay Kendall is the CEO and principal of BaldrigeCoach, and co-author with Glenn Bodinson, FACHE of Leading the Malcolm Baldrige Way: How World Class Leaders Align Their Organizations To Deliver Exceptional Results (CLICK HERE to get your copy). From 2002 through 2005, Kay served on the Panel of Judges for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Program after serving as an Examiner and Senior Examiner for the program for six years. She continues to serve as an Alumni for the program. Kay has facilitated examiner training for the Baldrige program since 1998, as well as for other Baldrige-based programs. For more information visit

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