As a leader -- actually, as a human -- there is one thing you can count on happening no matter what's going on in the market, in your industry, or even in your company: Things will change. These days, the rate of that change is happening faster than ever, and it will only get faster.
Knowing that for a verifiable fact, leaders are compelled to do one critical thing in response: Act.
Actions really do speak louder than words.
You might be thinking, OK, that's obvious. But not really. Too many leaders spend more time talking about what they need to do than actually doing it. That's potentially dangerous, culturally and from a business perspective.
Now that most of us are working remotely, it's even more important that leaders understand intimately: What is their talk-to-action ratio?
We're no longer able to connect with our talent the same way we once could. There are no impromptu water cooler conversations or spontaneous trips into the office for a check-in. I personally miss wearing out the soles of my shoes metaphorically walking "the shop floor" to touch base with people in different departments. That was prime intel gathering time. I can't tell you how many ideas, problems, and solutions I've identified this way.
We're getting used to the remote work environment out of necessity, but we haven't acclimated fully yet, and as a result, we can't hold ourselves and others accountable for turning our talk to action.
There has to be a result. We can't just indulge in meeting after meeting where we fill copious amounts of time debating the merits of this or that decision and discussing wonderful plans that have yet to be realized or, in many cases, even begun. This kind of active inactivity has the bonus impact of not only getting nothing done, it also tends to aggravate your talent.
Your direct reports want to leave Zoom calls with actionable plans in hand, not know that in a few days or a week they'll be right back on a call with the same people discussing the same things all over again.
Leaders must be the change they want to see
One of the most important leadership lessons I've learned is that you must be an example. People throughout your organization are looking right at their leaders for cues on how to behave, when to make changes, and how to take appropriate action when necessary.
So it's the leaders' job to live the work life they want their talent to emulate. We have to be the inspiration our teams need, we have to model how to collaborate, and we have to be a source of great ideas and actionable strategies on how to turn those ideas into the products, services, and process efficiencies that make our companies successful.
Modeling the right behaviors is even more important during times of disruption. The pandemic is a prime example, but industry-altering disruptions like Covid-19 aren't the only kinds of changes that should spark changed behavior. The right behaviors should be modeled in good times as well as challenging ones.
You may have heard Peter Drucker's famous phrase, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." That's 100 percent true. Increasing your talk-to-action ratio must begin with your organizational culture.
If the leader remains calm and can be counted on to generate ideas and then act on them, guess what the workforce will do? Great leaders know that doing something -- anything -- is always better than just talking. You can always course correct if a decision doesn't pan out as expected or desired, but inactivity means opportunities slip right on by, never to be seen or heard from again.
Prioritizing action doesn't mean sacrificing collaboration
I'm touting the benefits of increasing your talk-to-action ratio because I know from experience what happens when you don't. When I began my tenure as the CEO at Tribune, our ratio wasn't where it needed to be. The publishing industry was at the beginning of major digital disruption. We had to act and initiate some substantial cultural changes or we were going to fail.
Culture change was one of the first things we tackled as a leadership team, and we hit it straight on to allow our immediate actions to create the positive momentum we needed to usher in and sustain the various organizational changes we implemented.
Why did it work so quickly? Well, you probably know the answer: We set the stage, then we put our money where our mouths were. We did more doing than talking.
Now, don't misunderstand. I'm not knocking the benefits of collaborating or thoughtful deliberation and discussion. Promoting action over talking doesn't automatically mean do either one or the other -- ideally it means and, in addition to. The value of collaboration can't be discounted, but that doesn't mean you should spend more time talking and consensus building than you do taking action.
Creating and consistently promoting an action-oriented culture can bring a sense of urgency to an organization. It can invigorate a team, and leaders have to be prepared for the results. Increasing your action-to-talk ratio will naturally lead to more failures. Even the best laid plans can go bust, or produce errors or missteps that you must then recover from. But it's the leaders' responsibility to ensure that those failures lead to lessons learned and changed action, so that, going forward, the failures won't be repeated and the lessons learned will become better plans, more action, and ultimately successful outcomes.
It's a process
Setting a goal to increase your organization's talk-to-action ratio isn't going to be a smooth, let's-flip-the-switch-and-act-differently procedure. Cultural change is almost always a process. It may need to be rolled out in stages, with leaders demonstrating the hows and whys all along the way.
Further, this isn't something you can read about in a book or learn in a workshop. It's both tangible and intangible, because the results are visible in high quality deliverables, outcomes, revenue, and all of that good stuff. But how to actually increase an organization's talk-to-action ratio requires a flexible series of actions that must be adapted to fit cultural movements. It takes time and practice, and it will require course corrections.
Leaders will have to set expectations, communicate consistently and concisely why action is necessary, allow for failures, and then reward action and results, not talk. Those are tough cultural changes to make, but in the end, despite the hiccups and road bumps, it's worth it. Trust me.
Take a hard look at your talk-to-action ratio, and then make meaningful progress to build a more proactive, action-oriented culture. If you don't, your customers and talent may leave you, and your competitors will leave you behind.
So, leaders, always act more than you talk. Spread that behavior throughout your organization and you'll be that much closer to winning.