You Gotta Walk the Talk

5 min read • Apr 15, 2013 • Ty Kiisel

A few years back our Boston Terrier, Cosmo, passed away. He was the worlds best dog and I often miss him. He had been a part of the family when the children were young, he was well-mannered, easy going, and incredibly well behaved. I haven’t brought myself to the place where I can even think about replacing him, which is why we don’t have another dog.

As Cosmo and I made the rounds through the neighborhood, he was the picture of a well-mannered dog. Many of my neighbors would comment that they wished their dog would behave like Cosmo on the leash. As a puppy, I spent a lot of time training him. Fortunately, he was a quick learner who wanted to please. It didn’t take very long before he was the envy of the neighborhood.

I credit his learning curve to a talented trainer that I was smart enough to listen to. Consistency, I learned from him, was the key to creating a good relationship between dog and master. You have to be consistent in your instructions and your training routine—you gotta walk the talk.

How many people have you worked with who were great at talking, but not very good at doing? If your career is anything like mine has been over the years, you likely thought to yourself, “Far too many.” What’s more, it sometimes feels like the “talkers” seem to move ahead of the “doers.” Nevertheless, most small business people I know are looking for doers. I agree with Shakespeare when he said, “Talkers are no good doers.”

As a small business owner, you should know that you need to walk the talk too.

Earlier this year the Edelman Trust Barometer for 2013 was released with results from 31,000 respondents in 26 markets around the world. For all the harping we do in small business about how we can’t trust the folks in Washington, you might find it interesting to know that only 18 percent of those surveyed trust the boss—that’s only marginally above government officials who come in at a whopping 13 percent. Both at the bottom of the list. Not a very positive endorsement of either group.

“We’re clearly experiencing a crisis in leadership,” says Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman PR.

Cosmo experienced no leadership crisis in our relationship. He was treated kindly, he knew where he fit in our family, and he knew that I would be consistent in my interactions with him. By no means do I intend to suggest that employees should be treated like my dog Cosmo, but my faithful friend trusted me and I trusted him.

Not too long ago I spent some time with Judith Umlas, Senior Vice President at the International Institute for Learning, to talk about her most recent book Grateful Leadership: Using the Power of Acknowledgement to Engage All your People and Achieve Superior Results. It didn’t take long for me to discover that we were both on the same page as we talked about creating a positive work culture, effective leadership, and building employee trust.

One of the things I like about Judy’s approach is how a simple change in how we interact with each other can actually foster an environment where people can perform at their best, be more engaged in their work, and have a positive impact on the level of trust employees feel toward the boss.

One of the case studies she shared with me really seemed to hit the nail on the head. At least it pointed out the difference between recognition and acknowledgement for me; and might be a great way to illustrate the difference for you too. And, lest you think this is all about sensitive leaders coddling overly-sensitive employees, you might be interested to know that the case study involves the U.S. Army and how Judy consults with them to better train their officers. She shared with me the observation of one Army officer who said, “I’ve been recognized many times over the course of my career, but I have never been acknowledged.”

He then proceeded to share how he thought this was something important enough that the Army should pay attention. Since that time, Judy has been a regular consultant working with the Army on a number of challenges that face its leaders and its fighting men and women.

I really thought I understood what the idea of acknowledgement was when I first met Judy, but I was wrong. The two biggest lessons I learned from her are:

  1. It’s less about what someone does and more about who they are: I don’t want to put words in Judy’s mouth, but I think the fact that acknowledgements are more about who you are than what you do is part of what makes them so meaningful. What’s more, “Grateful Leaders create a culture of appreciation,” she says. I have always believed that effective recognition needed to be specific. Although that might be true of recognition, it doesn’t apply to acknowledgement. “Judy, you bring a wonderful temperament into the office. The stress levels just seem to drop on every project you work on,” is a great acknowledgement. At the same time, “Judy, thank you for the extra effort on the Jensen product. The extra time you spent to make sure the drawings were perfect really made the difference and helped us secure the contract,” is a good example of recognition. See the difference?
  2. Sharing acknowledgement might be uncomfortable at first—get over it: I must admit, acknowledging people sounds easier than it is. As I’ve sat down with members of my team and tried to incorporate this approach into our interactions, it has sometimes felt pretty cheesy and maybe even a bit contrived. However it’s become easier for me to be genuinely more appreciative of my colleagues as time has gone on. I work with some pretty incredible people. What’s more, whether or not the acknowledgements I share are meaningful to them (which I think they probably are), I feel better about the members of my team and the people within our organization I get to work with. So, at the very least, it’s been meaningful to me.

I agree with both Edelman and Umlas. We do have a crisis in leadership and at the same time, we have a real opportunity to do something about it. All it takes is a little effort on the part of leadership to change the way we interact with our employees. Judy suggests it’s even possible to create a culture of trust where it doesn’t now exist. It starts with one person, one conversation, and one acknowledgement. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”

When leaders of organizations large and small commit to walking the talk and start putting their money and resources where their mouth is, we might actually see this environment of distrust and dislike dissipate. Business is personal—and it includes the relationship between employees and their employer.


Ty Kiisel

Small business evangelist and veteran of over 30 years in the trenches of Main Street business, Ty makes small business financing and trends accessible in common sense language devoid of the jargon.