When addressing groups of managers, I like to ask if they believe the mantra that they should lead by example. Of course, they always agree.
I then joke, "If, by some stroke of magic, all of your teams began mimicking your exact actions, attitudes, and behaviors tomorrow, would that be a dream or a nightmare for you?"
As the nervous laughter subsides, I often volunteer that in the past I have been as guilty as anyone of forgetting that my actions speak louder than my words. And often I was not aware of what my actions were communicating.
One particular incident a few years back really brought this to my attention.
I was visiting one of the in-store branches in my division. Texas isn't exactly a small territory, and it was a struggle getting to each branch very often, so when I did get to a branch, it became far more of an "event" than I would have liked.
Without intending to, I pretty much brought things to a screeching halt whenever I visited. Branch personnel would spend most of their time looking nervous and trying not to goof up while I was there. For my part, usually I would simply try to stay out of their way. Too often I'd end up holed up in the manager's office looking at activity logs and spreadsheets like some ominous auditor.
Then I received a wake-up call. During one visit, a teller whispered to a customer, "I'm a little nervous. Our boss is here." Without missing a beat, that customer laughed loud enough for the branch to hear, "Which one's your boss? The guy in the suit just standing around?"
I believe the branch manager's heart began beating again when I started laughing and approached the customer. I told her that she was absolutely right. I was apparently just another suit getting in the way.
That little incident jolted me into realizing that I spent most of my waking moments preaching to our branch folks about the importance of doing certain things and behaving in certain ways. But when I spent time with them on or around the front line, I seldom did any of it myself. I was a walking contradiction.
After wishing that customer a great day, I looked around for the branch's book of public address announcement scripts. I then walked out to a cashier's microphone and informed customers, "We are so dedicated to your convenience that we placed an entire grocery store in our lobby for you."
In my former life as an in-store branch manager, I'd done a thousand PA announcements. But this branch team would have had no idea about that. When I walked back to the branch, I laughed at how stunned they appeared. I imagine this relatively young staff didn't think that the "suits" would (or could) do the nuts and bolts things we asked them to do every day.
I know I had shared numerous stories with my branch managers about when I worked in a branch and did the very things I was asking of them. But without meaning to, I may have given the impression that once you "graduated" to a higher position, this stuff wasn't important enough for senior management to do anymore.
From that day on, I made it a practice that whenever one of my district or regional managers or I visited a branch, we would interact conspicuously with customers and thank them for their business. We'd communicate to our teams through actions that engaging customers personally was the highest priority we had.
If we were at an in-store branch, we'd make an announcement or maybe hand out a few fliers. We'd also make a point of picking up the clutter and trash that a retail setting attracts like a magnet.
No amount of e-mail, memos, or conference calls can communicate what an organization holds most important like the actions of its leaders. But too often we forget this when spending time in the field.
And though I'm not sure what the exact formula is, I am convinced that the higher up the individuals are on the organizational chart, the exponentially stronger the effects are from their behavior and customer interactions when they are in a branch.
I would not expect that our more senior managers would have time to shake the most hands or talk to the most customers. Their responsibilities and job descriptions simply don't allow for it. I would not even expect that these folks necessarily would be as good (or comfortable) at these things as the folks doing it every day.
But those simple actions almost always make stronger and more lasting impressions than anything said to an employee during a visit.
One of my favorite descriptions of "culture" is "what your people are doing when no one is telling them what to do." And few things establish and communicate a culture more than the examples leaders set through their actions.
Pay special attention to your activities and those of other organizational leaders when working around or simply visiting the front lines. Would you be happy if the rest of your team followed your example?
More often than not, they will.