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Organizational Values: From Platitudes to Attitudes

Posted on 09/24/2019 in Culture/Team Alignment, Executive Coaching, Featured Articles, Leadership by Jack Speer

Organizational Values: From Platitudes to Attitudes

By Jack Speer and Carol Kallendorf, PhD | September 24, 2019

Are stated values in organizations really valuable?  Any entrepreneur will tell you that values are critical.  They give an organization direction, define its “DNA” and pull it together.  Organizations often do live their values, and we have clients that live them every day.

Having said that, when you look at the format in which corporate values are written and presented, they often seem abstract, disconnected–and yes, here I said it–mostly boring. 

Here’s how organizational values really get put together.  A group of executives devote a day or two of their time.  There’s usually with a professional facilitator who guides them through the process of creating the vision and values.  For those who participate in the session, there are often a lot of unwritten “rules of the road.”  “Stay in the right lane and don’t break the speed limit.  Obey all traffic laws.”  Bottom line, when you’re talking about values, let’s climb the tree, but don’t go out on a limb.

Sessions on values are good.  We facilitate them from time to time.  It’s one of those rare opportunities for leadership to really think about the direction of the organization as a group.

But value sessions often seem to move in slow motion.   They’re like a a minuet waltz in an old movie with people moving stiffly across the floor.   They rarely–if ever–tap into the energy of a group of people together whose lives and careers are on the line.

Here’s one example of a corporate values statement that has some really important elements, but the way it’s written, this statement would cure chronic insomnia.

  1. “We sell great products in our industry”
  2. “We satisfy, delight, and give value to our customers”
  3. “We support team member excellence and happiness”
  4. “We create wealth through profits and growth”

What I like is the order in which these values are presented: 1) the product 2) the customer 3) the employees 4) the investors.  I actually read the values of one of the biggest tech companies in the world and it didn’t even mention employees.But while I like the order, it isn’t reality in any organization that I know about

  1. Creating wealth, profit, and growth, last in our example above, is always the number one value of the company, and employees must be hugely aware of this.  The truth about Enron, fiasco failure of 2001, was hidden from its employees, while CEO Ken Lay was telling all the employees that the future was bright.  We watched this debacle firsthand.  If a company isn’t profitable or on the road to profitability, the biggest value should be to find an exit plan from the company.
  2. Selling good products.  A few companies maintain the passion.  The company cited above has a great reputation but cuts a lot of corners on quality to maximize their market–this will fail.  Apple is one of the few companies that have maintained passion for quality, although they have been largely unable to innovate after Job’s passing.  I know one company that produces fitness measurement equipment, and they either have engineers who graduated last in their class or an intentional strategy of planned obsolescence for their products, which work great at purchase and then fail.
  3. Delight our customers – I believe that pleasing customers is the place where more organizations succeed than in any other area.  A great emphasis in the 90’s on total quality, supply chain, and just in time inventory, coupled with incredible technology has made business extremely successful with customers–and customer expectation is through the roof.
  4. We support team member excellence and happiness is a sadly vague wording that shows the ambiguity that organizations feel about employees.  It basically says we want to find great employees who can do the work for as long as we need them.  We like them personally, provide perks while they’re here, pay them at market value, and wish them joy and happiness after our round of layoffs leaves them with their kids just about ready to go off to college.  There is an employee contract, but it’s written in disappearing ink.  This ambiguity will never be able to get the employee to truly buy in, except in cases where there is employee equity.

The following are 4 points of writing and living company values.

  1. Drink Some Truth Serum.  Values should serve as guides for on-the-ground decision making…day in and day out.  A good test of the reality of your values is to ask these questions:  Will we make the decision our values point to….even if it’s cheaper or more profitable to not do so?  If an employee at any level makes a decision that costs the company money but lines up with our values, will that employee be lauded….or fired?
  2. Can You Remember Them?  If your values are not stated simply, concretely and “memorably”….they’ll be an arid exercise, not company DNA.
  3. If They Matter…Measure Them.  What gets measured, gets done.  So incorporate questions and behavioral items based on your values into employee surveys, 360s for your people managers, and Team 360s.
  4. Recruit, Onboard and Train to Them.  In recruiting new team members, look for “values fit” in addition to skills and experience.  Build an experiential exploration of your values into your onboarding process.  And incorporate your values into company training.

Organizational values should become the call to battle for organizations, making each stakeholder group say, “Yes, I’ve got skin in the game.”  I will live these values because they chart my future.  Customers who buy the product or service should see it as a consumer gamechanger—making life easier, enabling possibilities creating options.  Value statements for employees should reflect a world-class environment with exceptional opportunity, pay, and equity.  Investors should see their risk rewarded.  The interests of everyone who has a stake in the organization will never completely align, but the values dig into their common core beliefs.  Values truly—powerfully presented–are the foundation of organizational success.

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