At this year’s International Leadership Week (Nov 18-21, 2019), The Institute and our speakers are exploring organisational and personal values. Ahead of the event, some of the most authoritative, world-renowned, thought-leadership voices speaking during the week have given The Institute a sneak preview of their thoughts. Here, in the final blog in this exclusive series Marshall Goldsmith, probably the most famous coach in the world, explains why living our leadership values speaks volumes.

Companies waste millions of dollars and countless hours of employees’ time agonising over the wording of statements that are inscribed on plaques and hung on walls. There is an assumption that people’s behaviour will change because the pronouncements on plaques are ‘inspirational’, or 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 behaviour.

Sometimes these words morph as people try 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 then finally reach the pinnacle of “customer delight.”

This obsession with words belies one very large problem: there is almost no correlation between the words on the wall and the behaviour 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.” Yet, because the big messages are all basically the same, the words quickly lose their real meaning to employees – if they had any in the first place.

My partner, Howard Morgan, and I collected more than 86,000 mini-survey responses from 11,480 managers who participated in leadership development activities (Leadership Is a Contact Sport, 2004). This huge database gave us the opportunity to explore the points of commonality and distinction among eight very different leadership development efforts and the impact of leadership development programmes in changing executive behavior. As it turns out, each of the eight companies had different values and different words to describe ideal leadership behavior. Interestingly, these differences in words made absolutely no difference in determining the way leaders behaved. 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, every company’s appraisal system would be perfect by now.

Companies that do the best job of living up to their values and developing ethical employees, including managers, recognise 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 behaviour, companies should ensure that leaders get - and act upon - feedback from employees, the people who actually observe this behaviour. Rather than wasting time on changing performance appraisal forms, leaders need to learn from employees 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 posted on the wall will only make us look ridiculous.

Book your free place at Marshall Goldsmith’s free International Leadership Week webinar ‘It’s not all about you: the value of humility’ Nov 2, 6pm GMT/10am PST.