Does Your Leadership Model Belong on a Bumper Sticker?

True confession: I heart bumper stickers. Sometimes I even brake for them. Bite-sized insights about complete strangers are delightful. Generally, they’re catchy, and intended to provoke a specific result (perhaps a chuckle, a moment of outrage, or even a political epiphany!). But once the car passes, the sticker’s job is complete. It’s made an impression, left a feeling. As passersby, we are the intended consumers of the message. But in reality, they exist for the vanity of the driver.

Businesses – fueled only by the noblest of intentions – have a tendency to take a bumper-sticker-like approach to articulating their corporate leadership values. Perhaps your business calls it something different – but in essence, it’s the bumper sticker your organization posts to communicate the sound bytes of what it stands for, believes in. Words like integrity, authenticity, and all of their many cousins appear. They sound good, important. But really – aren’t they just the corporate version of “I’d rather be fishing?”

Companies publish these value statements as a means of communicating an important message to their employees : “We are principled and we hold you and ourselves accountable to something. These values differentiate us in the employment marketplace. Come fish with us.” And then often, they laminate this. And it hangs places.

But here’s the problem: What do these words – authenticity, integrity, etc really mean? Not in a dictionary, but in practice. And frankly, what company doesn’t stand for these things? So really, are these differentiators? Or are they corporate vanity, laminated?

To deliver real impact, organizations should take a fresh approach to developing these corporate values – at identifying, defining, and upholding them. But how? Let’s start with these…

1. Expand the evite list : At many companies, only the senior-most leaders are invited to the party. But frankly, when only the heads of state come together, put a bunch of words on the page, and then cascade them down like an FYI, there is no meaning or resonance to the employees. What makes your company truly unique to your employees? What brought them there? What keeps them there? And what are their aspirations for your organization? (Spoiler alert – it’s probably not “integrity”) Make it a shared mission. The answers to these questions are what belong on the page.

2. Avoid the $50 words: Don’t say “integrity.” It has a ring – I’ll grant you that. But really – do you know it when you see it? Or when you don’t? Choose actual descriptive behaviors . What is integrity really about – how do we know when we see it? Is integrity alive when leaders speak candidly with their teams about present and anticipated business happenings? Is it when leaders deliver honest, regular performance feedback that keeps every employee informed of his/her performance standing? Great. Then don’t say “integrity”. Say “we communicate candidly about our business and we promise regular, honest performance conversations throughout the entire year”. Now THAT’S impact.

Related: How to Be Your Own Wizard

3. Say what you mean and mean what you say : I’ve worked at companies that have proudly laminated integrity and respect – but then let too many leaders get away with appalling and very integrity-absent behaviors because they were good at their jobs. Set a standard. Hold every single person accountable every day. Let no one feel irreplaceable.

4. Keep it breathing: Lamination is not an ending. Check in with your employees regularly. Are you living it? Are they feeling it? I once read this fascinating white paper about a company who’d instituted a powerful culture change, yielding amazing outcomes for its employees. But guess what – I was an employee of that very company, and I can assure you the “amazing experience” described in said paper was not illustrative of the actual employee experience. Don’t toot your horn because you’ve laminated something. Keep yourself in check. Pulse your employees. Ask how you’re doing, really mean it, and be willing to make changes as you go.

So what’s the take away? Bumper stickers are fun… for cars passing by at 60 MPH. But business leaders – let the vanity go. Sounds bytes don’t inspire teams. Honesty and collaboration do. And also – throw out the laminators. They imply a permanence that fails to invite agility and evolution.