Using a Leader Say-Do Survey To Align Leadership


By Mary Miller—We’ve all been there. A new leader comes in and sets his or her strategic priorities for the organization, and the previous strategic plan is suddenly no longer relevant. Yet some of the members of the leadership team don’t (or won’t) change direction for any number of reasons. The result? Confusion and frustration. Fear not, this article describes a technique to help you deal: the Leader Say-Do Survey for measuring the consistency of leadership communication.

The Leader Say-Do Survey is a well-established tool that enables communication practitioners to build an accountable approach to leadership communication. It encourages the entire organization to pull in the same direction, toward the same goals, based on common awareness, understanding, and consistent priorities. Further, when brought forward by the communication function, the survey helps elevate the perceived value of the function because it can help identify and resolve communication issues among leadership that can stall forward progress.

Why Leadership Communication Matters

Internal communications owns the formal communication channels, meaning the traditional channels for pushing news and information out, but those channels represent only a small influence on employee behavior that drives business results. Research from the Jim Shaffer Group (private communication) shows that the real driver is leadership and the decisions it makes:

So if your leadership team isn’t all singing from the same song book, the likelihood that employees will be on board with any new strategy is slim.

The Leader Say-Do Survey

The Leader Say-Do Survey is an employee survey that evaluates how well leadership communicates the organization’s strategic priorities or goals (the Say part). Employees are also asked the extent to which they see their leaders taking action in support of the priorities (the Do part). For the CEO, it helps identify which members of the leadership team may be out of step with the overall organizational goals and where alignment needs adjustment.

The first step is to clearly identify what is meant by “leader.” The Leader Say-Do Survey survey instructs employees to respond based on “…the most senior leader in your function, from whom your team receives direction.” It then clarifies that definition with a questions that asks:

       “Which of the following best represents the most senior leader you interact with on a regular basis?”


a. The leader of the company (CEO)
b. The head of my business unit or function (usually a VP or GM)
c. A senior leader in my chain of command (e.g., a plant manager, site head, country manager, departmental head)
d. My manager (but not one of the above)

Detailed questions provide demographic data about the employees including geographic location, length of service, and other demographic data used to help identify the functional area of the leader being evaluated.

To be an effective tool, the Leader Say-Do survey needs to be repeated on a regular basis to gauge whether alignment has improved. Timing of follow-up surveys depends on the size of the organization and other circumstances, such as urgency or the need for a fast turnaround. Follow-up surveys give leaders the opportunity to show measurable communication improvement, which translates into business performance improvement.

Red Herrings

To distinguish the actual company priorities/goals, it is necessary to build control questions or “red herrings” into the survey questionnaire. That is, two to three off-strategy topics are mixed in with the real priorities, and presented as though they could be conceivable goals. Often, the language used to create the red herrings refers to “the old way” or a strategy the company is trying to move away from.

In the example survey below, the red herrings are indicated in red. These are not announced corporate priorities, but could easily be construed as realistic goals and would be expected to be selected by some employees. The total list of topics should not exceed 10-12.

Note: Best practice would indicate that there be only three to five actual strategic priorities, though sub-goals under priorities may be included as legitimate topics.

Survey Example

Here is a sample Leader Say-Do survey. The gray numbers in this example are there simply to remind the survey taker of the scoring number they are assigning. 

Sample Leader Say-Do survey. *Do not assign “Don’t Know” a value of “6,” which would skew the mean score artificially high.


Leader Say-Do Survey report example.

The example above represents the at-a-glance view of the corporate Leader Say-Do results across an organization. Additional data provided in the survey report include gap scores (the point gap between Say and Do). A gap of over 30 points indicates a serious credibility gap; 16-30 indicates a cause for concern; and 0-15 means that leaders are walking the talk.

For both the Say and Do measures, a mean score of 70% is the minimum guideline. Specifically, a score 70% or below signals cause for concern and potential credibility issues with leadership. As a result, priorities are probably not getting through and they are not being addressed at a level that will achieve the organizational goals. That doesn’t mean anything above 70% is acceptable. It would be dangerous for an organization to be complacent with mean scores around 80%, when higher performing companies typically score closer to 90% or above.

Because the survey provides scores for individual teams, it helps the CEO identify which members of the leadership team may be out of step with the overall organizational goals and where alignment needs adjustment.

When the leadership team is aligned, the actual priorities should score much higher than the red herrings, and the gap between Say and Do should be significantly smaller than that of the red herring options. Without alignment or leader communication accountability, the distinctions between actual and ‘fake’ priorities are commonly not statistically significant.

When the results are tabulated, it will be very apparent which senior leaders are communicating the priorities, focusing their attention on those priorities and giving their teams direction and feedback to achieve the goals. It becomes equally apparent which senior leaders are not doing so, which is why the process of reporting the results is also important.

Reporting results

Obviously, reporting such results can be a delicate operation. Initially, senior leaders who score poorly almost universally reject the findings and create excuses for why the data is not valid or “scientific.” This is an important reason for including a professional research consultant in the process, and for being extremely detailed in explaining the methodology. The data is valid.

It is the author’s experience that those leaders scoring the lowest Say-Do gaps (which means the highest Say-Do ratings) are leading the functions or sites that are delivering high performance to the organization. The CEO and others on the senior leadership team are usually quick to recognize that correlation as well. The prospect of evaluation in follow-up surveys gives low-scoring and rogue leaders the motivation to align with their peers, thus contributing to improved company performance. Those who choose not to align give the CEO an airtight reason for change.

In the end, with a system of Leader Say-Do surveys, the communication function has offered executive leadership a tool that helps leaders align to deliver business results by driving the employee communication system. We all win. ∞

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