A Few Things Great Leaders Do

Walt Picking Up Trash 2This photo of Walt Disney at Disneyland (probably in the late 1950s) is my all-time favorite Disney photo. The message it communicates is timeless – effective leaders walk-the-talk.  

I like to imagine a new Disneyland cast member in training at that time, hearing his trainer explain the importance of keeping the park clean. Glancing up, the new cast member sees Walt Disney himself picking up trash. Training doesn’t get any better than that. 

The concept of leaders needing to  “walk-the-talk” has been around forever, and can seem over-used. But I don’t think the phrase can ever be over-used. The fact is that many leaders fail to put the concept of walking-the-talk into practice

I was recently conducting a customer experience workshop for a small group of leaders. While we covered a lot of customer service and leadership topics, I saved the walk-the-talk topic for last because this is where things become personal. I asked the group to brainstorm this question: What observable behaviors will demonstrate to my team that I am totally committed to delivering outstanding customer experiences? 

Plenty of responses came out of the discussion, but I want to highlight a few that I think capture the essence of what it means for a leader to walk-the-talk of service excellence.

  • Put actions to your words– The Walt Disney photo accompanying this post says it best. If you want your employees to behave a certain way, it’s imperative for you to behave that same way. If you expect your employees to be highly responsive to customer needs, and yet you take days to respond to an employee’s communication (or you don’t respond at all), your behavior contradicts your expectation. On the other hand, when employees see you helping out a customer, or jumping in to assist during a busy time, or picking up that stray piece of trash, you’ve communicated that service excellence is everyone’s responsibility, regardless of title.

  •  Recognize that words matter– What a leader says about customers, employees, and other departments sets the tone for how team members will talk about customers, fellow employees, and other departments. When a leader talks about breaking down organizational silos, but constantly badmouths other departments in front of his or her employees, the blame game is reinforced and perpetuated. And rather than silos being broken down, they’re strengthened.

  • Engage the hearts and minds of your employees– There may have been a time when the leader had the answers to most business issues that would arise.  The leader had formal authority and was usually an expert in all phases of the operation.  Due to changing customer expectations and competition, those days are over. Today’s best leaders get their people involved in improving the organization. They recognize that those employees closest to the customer know better than anyone what frustrates customers and what can be done to improve the customer experience. Effective leaders set the vision, but then play the roles of facilitator, idea champion, and barrier remover.

  • Hold every member of the team accountable– Effective leaders ensure that delivering outstanding service is non-negotiable. They don’t let substandard performance slide. If a member of the team isn’t living up to expectations, effective leaders don’t hesitate to coach that team member. And if substandard performance continues, effective leaders don’t hesitate to “invite the employee to work somewhere else.” An organization’s brand is too fragile to allow behaviors that frustrate or anger customers to continue. 

Certainly there are many other walk-the-talk leadership behaviors that could be listed here, and the workshop participants doing the brainstorming came up with quite a list. But the four leadership behaviors noted here seemed to most resonate with the group, and me as well. I encourage you, however, to add your own items to the list. 

One of my favorite leadership quotes comes from business author Tom Peters: 

“The problem isn’t that your people don’t know what you’re doing.
The problem is that they DO know what you’re doing.”

It really is a problem when a leader’s actions aren’t aligned with his or her words. Trust is eroded, and the most he or she can hope for is employee compliance. Employee commitment is out of the question when leaders fail to walk-the-talk of service excellence. 

Here’s something to think about: What observable behaviors will demonstrate to your team that you are totally committed to delivering outstanding customer experiences?