“… the more time I spend with game-changing innovators and high-performing companies, the more I appreciate the need for leaders to “talk the walk” — that is, to be able to explain, in language that is unique to their field and compelling to their colleagues and customers, why what they do matters and how they expect to win. The only sustainable form of business leadership is thought leadership. And leaders that think differently about their business invariably talk about it differently as well.”
Taylor rightly acknowledges the importance of language to people’s understanding, motivation, and performance - whether for better or worse! I wonder, though, if the way that he describes the notion of “talking the walk”, and the example that he uses to explain it, does it full justice. In particular, I think that he fails to highlight how, practised properly, this signals a fundamental shift in the nature of leadership communication. A shift, that is, that privileges joint sense-making and relationship building ahead of the excessive emphasis on 'getting the message across' that continues to dominate current practice.
It seems to me that Taylor is advocating a very ‘static’ conception of "talking the walk", based on his observation of senior managers inculcating new employees with the ins and outs of a pre-defined company ‘credo’. And, as presented here, the practice also appears to remain firmly rooted in the belief that the purpose of leadership communication is to ‘get the message across’ to employees – in this case a message that “defines life inside the organization and reminds everyone what really drives success”.
He clearly has no doubt that he was witnessing a powerful act of leadership communication during what he describes as,
“… an executive teaching marathon unlike anything I have seen before… with a combination of slide shows, stand-up humor, war stories from the trenches, and unabashed appeals to the heart.”
But was he? Did any meaning-full communication really take place during the eight-hour "marathon"? Or was that something that could only come later, if at all?
The conversations are the work
Crucially, it is through the shared act of conversation (i.e. interactive talk) that meaning is co-created and action emerges. It is not through set-piece presentations, however useful those might be in stimulating the conversations in the first place, highlighting potential 'conversational themes', and so on.
For the past several years, in various organizational change and development settings, I’ve used the phrase “talk the walk” many times with managers. But I've done this to underscore the importance of their using ‘talk’ (in the broadest sense of the word), to help people (including themselves!) to make sense of what’s actually going on, day-in-day-out, in their lived experience. The Reframing Communication chapter in Informal Coalitions goes into this in some depth.
Organization is enacted through people’s ongoing sense-making-cum-action-taking conversations. Some of these take place with the active involvement of those in formal management roles. Most don’t. And yet, it’s from the widespread interplay of these conversations - formal and informal, structured and unstructured, external and internal (i.e. thinking) - that whatever happens, happens. So seeking to understand and influence the content and patterning of people's conversations is an important (arguably the most important) act of leadership – even if neither those immediately involved nor anyone else can control what ultimately emerges (see, for example, here and here for more on why this is the case).
All of this means that, for those in formal leadership positions (from CEO to first-line supervisors), the conversations are the work. And "talking the walk" – that is, helping people to make sense of what’s actually going on through their everyday interactions - is central to this.
NOTE: A one-page introduction to the Leadership Communication Grid can be downloaded here. When fully understood, this sense-making framework is intended to help managers enhance their leadership communication practice, by recognizing that this involves much more than simply 'getting the message across'.