It is in your behaviours and what you focus on
Let me give you an example. In one of the companies I worked in, the leadership team was trying to create much greater collaboration across the divisions of the business. It was imperative if they were to improve customer satisfaction ratings, which had plateaued and were threatening to start waning. The leadership team could not understand why they could not improve co-operation between the departments. They were exhorting their teams to do so daily. However, our research showed that staff felt the leadership team was divided and its members were actively speaking out against each other, pursuing individual and competing agendas. The CEO was shocked, as were all of the executive directors. The CEO encouraged robust debate at his weekly executive meetings, in the belief that this was the only way to achieve robust solutions. The only problem was that the robust debate did not stop when the executives left the CEO’s meeting room. They continued to argue with each other in e-mail exchanges that were copied to their subordinates for example, thinking that the signal they were sending was that they were open and challenging with each other, which is what they wanted from their staff. Wrong. The signal wasn’t taken that way. Far from encouraging collaboration, it encouraged staff to see collaboration as dangerous to their own careers. As their bosses were so outspoken about the silly ideas of their peers, there was no way that they would take steps to work with people in other departments when they knew their own director was openly opposed to the suggestions of his opposite number. It took considerable effort to convince staff otherwise and repair the damage.
In another case, as a reward to his executive management team for six solid weeks of 18-hour days, my CEO client treated his directors and their wives to a special dinner at a fashionable restaurant in London. His team had been working on a cost-cutting programme, essential to improving margins when revenues had temporarily stopped growing. He failed to see the irony in his action, but his staff did not. As one employee noted: ‘It is a curious signal you send when you take your top team out to a lavish and expensive dinner, and then come back to the office and tell us to cut costs in every possible way.’
In this case, the leadership team was horrified. What had been a gesture of thanks was being interpreted as hypocrisy. They had not thought the issue through, and I’m sure that if they had they would have been much more mindful and found another way to recognize the efforts of the top team.
Everything you do is an example, and everything communicates. Decisions you make, policies you put in place, things you do or don’t do, issues you fail to act on – all of these communicate more clearly than your words. If you say that sales are the most important thing to achieve but then you focus on cutting costs, guess where everybody’s attention will be! If you constantly bang on about the need to achieve great results but then give just one poorly performing person a break, you will confuse everyone around you. As uncomfortable as that is, leaders have to recognize that they send signals beyond the words they use. A truly adept leader uses this to his or her advantage.