Ultimately, our actions will say much more to employees about our values and our leadership skills than our mission statements ever can. If our actions are wise, no one will care if the words on the wall are not perfect. If our actions are foolish, the wonderful words on the wall will only make us look more ridiculous.
Companies have wasted millions of dollars and countless hours of employees' time agonizing over the wording of statements that are put on plaques and hung on walls. There is a clear assumption that people's behavior will change because the pronouncements on plaques are 'inspirational' or because certain words 'integrate our strategy and values.' There is an implicit hope that when people ... especially managers ... hear great words, they will start to exhibit great behavior .
Sometimes these words morph to keep up with the latest trends in corporate-speak. A company may begin by striving for 'customer satisfaction', then advance to 'total customer satisfaction', and finally reach the pinnacle of 'customer delight'.
But this obsession with words belies one very large problem: There is almost no correlation between the words on the wall and the behavior of leaders. Every company wants 'integrity', 'respect for people', 'quality', 'customer satisfaction', 'innovation' and 'return for shareholders'. Sometimes companies get creative and toss in something about 'community' or 'suppliers'. But since the big messages are all basically the same, the words quickly lose their real meaning to employees ... if they ever had any in the first place.
Enron is a great example. Before the energy conglomerate's collapse in 2001, I had the opportunity to review Enron's values and even saw a wonderful video on Enron's ethics and integrity. I was greatly impressed by the company's espoused high-minded beliefs and the care put into the video. Examples of Enron's good deeds in the community and the professed character of Enron's executives were particularly noteworthy. It was one of the most smoothly professional presentations on ethics and values that I have ever seen. Clearly, Enron spent a fortune 'packaging' these wonderful messages.
It didn't really matter. Despite the lofty words, many of Enron's top executives either have been indicted or are in jail.
The situation couldn't be more different at Johnson & Johnson. The pharmaceutical company is famous for its 'Credo', which was written many years ago and reflected the sincere values of the leaders of the company at that time. The J&J Credo could be considered rather quaint by today's standards. It contains several old-fashioned phrases, such as 'must be good citizens' support good works and charities ... and bear our fair share of taxes ... and 'maintain in good order the property that we are privileged to use'. It lacks the slick PR packaging that I observed at Enron.
Yet, even with its less-powerful language and seemingly dated presentation, the J&J Credo works ... primarily because over many years, the company's management has taken the values that it offers seriously. J&J executives have consistently challenged themselves and employees not just to understand the values, but to live them in day-to-day behavior. When I conducted leadership training for J&J, one of its very top executives would spend many hours with every class. The executives' task was not to talk about compensation or other perks of J&J management; they were there to discuss living the company's values.
My partner, Howard Morgan, and I completed a study of more than 11,000 managers in eight major corporations. (See 'Leadership Is a Contact Sport', s+b, Fall 2004.) We looked at the impact of leadership development programs in actually changing executive behavior . As it turns out, each of the eight companies had different values and different words to describe ideal leadership behavior. But these differences in words made absolutely no difference in determining the way leaders behaved. Ironically, one company spent thousands of hours composing just the right words to express its view of how leaders should act ... in vain. I am sure that the first draft would have been just as useful.
At many companies, performance appraisal forms seem to undergo the same careful scrutiny as credos. In fact, more effort seems to be given to producing the perfect words on an appraisal form than to managing employee performance itself. I worked with one company that had used at least 15 different performance appraisal forms and was contemplating yet another change because the present sheet 'wasn't working'! If changing the words on the page could improve the performance management process, then every company's appraisal system would be perfect by now.
Companies that are doing the best job of living up to their values and developing ethical employees, including managers, recognize that the real cause of success ... or failure ... is always the people, not the words.
Rather than wasting time on reinventing words about desired leadership behavior, companies should ensure that leaders get (and act upon) feedback from employees ... the people who actually observe this behavior. Rather than wasting time on changing the words on performance appraisal forms, leaders need to learn from employees to ensure that they are providing the right coaching.
Ultimately, our actions will say much more to employees about our values and our leadership skills than our words ever can. If our actions are wise, no one will care if the words on the wall are not perfect. If our actions are foolish, the wonderful words on the wall will only make us look more ridiculous.
Life is good.
My newest book, MOJO, is a New York Times (advice), Wall Street Journal (business), USAToday (money) and Publisher's Weekly (non-fiction) best seller. It is now available online and at major bookstores.