People listen to what we DO, not what we SAY!

by Didier Marlier on Saturday November 23rd, 2013

Those of you who sit in our transformational seminars, know the story. A long time ago, at the beginning of my career, I was sitting in a plane, next to a Citibank senior banker. I was a young consultant in strategy during the fashion wave of Business Process Re-engineering. He was a well succeeded senior authority figure and I was intimidated.

When I explained what we were doing, he said: “It is all fine and sophisticated young man. But, if my experience is worth anything, unless people change their attitude and mindset, no strategy, no new process will ever be implemented”… He was so compelling that I ended up “kind of agreeing with him”. I suddenly thought I had found the way to contradict him: “OK, I take your point. Now, if we admit that changing behaviours and mindsets are the critical success factor (coming out straight of business school, that was still my language and it was anathema to suggest that brilliant thinking alone wouldn’t be enough to change the world) to implement a new strategy or a newly designed process, how do you do this?” He smiled at me: that was, obviously, the question he was expecting. “Please do what I’ll ask you to do” he said. As we were sitting in a plane I hesitated a bit but his rank of senior Citibanker reassured me. “Touch the top of your skull!” And as he was doing it himself, I touched the top of my skull. “Touch your forehead”, did he say, doing it simultaneously and so did I. “Touch you noose…” did he show and say, and so I did. “Touch your neck” he said, touching instead his chin and I went, as well straight for the chin. He stopped there with a large smile: “You see people listen to what you DO and not to what you SAY… Powerpoints, Excell spreadsheets won’t implement change. But the behaviours of the leaders will”.

Some months ago, I worked on another continent, with a leadership team that clearly believed in this. Their task was to turn around a huge state owned industrial company. People had been used to years and years of complacency, with a few successes but no cost consciousness at all. The state would always be there to pay the bill. The sense of urgency was an unknown notion, the denial of reality seemed the only the strategy.

The leadership team had first decided to “co-create clarity, meaning and ownership” by inviting their people to relaxed sessions where (standing up and not passively sitting), by small teams in order to provoke dialogue, they would be taken by the leaders in pairs to explain what was going on and their plans to react and get the plant back on track. The response was excellent and people felt treated like adults and with respect by their leaders. A lot of good ideas and purposeful challenges were collected.

The team then understood that the “listen to what you do” part was still to be proven. They courageously picked up a topic on which precedent management team had failed: the respect of HES (Health-Environment – Safety) rules. The place was rather casual about it and the track record miserable. So they went, republishing a few critical rules, giving two weeks to people to comply at no cost and warning that sanctions would fall on day 15th… And they did! Of course some were testing their determination, some were so accustomed to threats not followed by actions and some just had forgotten. In a few months, the place changed… People started to feel and believe that there were pilots in the plane, that management was walking the talk and taking them serious with respect. And they responded accordingly… Behaviours breed behaviours!

The transformation will take time of course. But I bet on their success and on the fact that superior knowledge and skills as well as jobs will be saved on that continent.

Simple to do and it takes courage and determination, as well as a team that is perfectly aligned. “People listen to what we do, not what we say”…

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3 Responses to “People listen to what we DO, not what we SAY!”

  1. Didier, lovely story and lesson! More and more I ask myself how we can review our behaviors in order to align our team. I think that it requires time, determination, transparency, clear millestones. Well, soon we will be together and talk about that.
    Ps. Almost finished your book! Excellent!

    Reply
    • Dear Denys,
      Thank you for your comment and your challenging question… A few reflections here:
      1.- 10 years or more, ago, Hay consultants claimed that, following a research they had made, 70% of a company’s culture could be linked directly to the observable behaviours of its significant leader. Recently, our partner, Stephen Okunowo, also shared a similar report from the University of Lund (69%). Our recent experience of “Researches” has however taught us to be careful with such strong affirmations. But, intuitively, the fact that “Significant Leaders” shape a good part of their organization’s culture will probably make sense to you. Suffice to take a look at your own organization.
      2.- Now, if we accept the idea that Leaders behaviours can shape up the culture of an organization, we can therefore focus on the leadership team, in order to have a formidable lever to shape up the culture
      3.- This is done, most often trhough a powerful and regular “Team Coaching” to ensure that the leaders all “look into the same direction”and find ways to spectacularly “walk the talk” of the culture they wish to implement.
      Looking fwd to being with you and your team this week,
      Abraço

      Reply
  2. Didier

    Amazing true. And it is also true for educating our sons. The first time I heard it was from a former American military that became our Latin America manufacturing director. His words were not exactly the same, he explained us that our teams would only do routine tasks that they saw us giving importance and attention, things we asked without a practical purpose would not last.
    Thanks for the insightful words, again!

    Reply

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