This fall we’ve been working extensively with executive teams striving to transform their cultures to boost safety, customer service, quality, and leadership at all levels. I wrote about some of this work around our Commitment Continuum in an earlier blog post which was also published in our October issue of The Leader Letter (“Lasting Culture Change Means Going Beyond Passionate Lip Service to Involved Leadership”).

We hear many sermons given by senior managers preaching the virtues of improving service/quality, safety, efficiency, or better leading (“people: our most important resource”). In turn, executives are causing their managers to place their left hand over their heart, raise their right hand and pledge allegiance to teamwork, customers, accountability, employee engagement, change, and the like.

But little changes. The people on the frontlines actually selling, making, delivering, or supporting the products or services grow ever more wary and cynical about the rising din of words and inconsistent actions. In many executive retreats we’ve facilitated, a common issue — and often a source of frustration — emerges: how do we get our people to be more concerned about service, quality, innovation, teamwork, safety, continuous improvement, or whatever values and priorities the executive team has determined it wants to instill? The frustration comes from a sense that managers, supervisors, and frontline performers aren’t getting the message. They need to be “smartened up.”

Values are a contagious affliction that spreads from a team or organization’s leaders. The key question is: are yours worth catching? As we survey customers, audit the cultural climate, and work with others throughout the organization, it’s clear that everyone is marching to roughly the same beat as the management team at the top of the department, division, or company. The values are being followed and lived by the majority of the organization — that is, the values as exemplified by senior management actions. All too often, senior managers don’t recognize their own values being reflected back to them. Their intended values are out of step with their lived values.

Senior executives live in an organizational fishbowl. Every word and action is analyzed and studied for its deeper meaning of what’s really important. These individual stories and examples are discussed throughout the organization and become part of the folklore from which organizational members define priorities, meaning, and culture. E-mails quickly fired back or forwarded with unguarded comments, a casual aside at a meeting, what’s first on meeting agendas, who’s invited, what seems to be uppermost on the senior executive’s mind according to the questions he or she asks — these all become grist for discussion and interpretation of what senior management values most.

So it’s not enough for the senior executive team to be “committed” to whatever the change effort may be focused on. That’s like asking if you are “committed” to family, world peace, or being a good person. There’s lukewarm “commitment” and then there’s “commitment” that’s bordering on obsession. Since we all know that actions speak much louder than words, senior managers need to work hard on visibly signaling their commitment so strongly and consistently that there can be no room for doubt about how critical the culture change effort is to the organization’s future.

An industrial magnate once told Mark Twain that he would like to climb Mount Sinai and read aloud the Ten Commandments. Twain is reported to have responded by saying, “Why don’t you just stay home and live them?” The American poet and scholar, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, could have been talking about leadership when he observed, “We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, but others judge us by what we have already done.”

Executives can only lead the improvement journey from the front. There can be no delegating or mere cheerleading. That means that the executive team’s daily management style and practices become a pivotal part of setting the tone, pace, style, and example for the whole improvement effort.