Values Underpin a Purpose Driven Organisation

Go into any progressive business and you will see corporate values laminated above the reception desk. I have no issues with values (in fact they have made my life as a solo dad manageable). Yet in too many companies it feels like we feel warm and fuzzy if we have values but rarely to we make employees accountable to uphold the values. If you are a leader at any level in any organization, you are a steward of company values. Unfortunately, not every manager is a wise steward. Some behave like mercenaries – by mortgaging the future to inflate short-term earnings, by putting career ahead of company, by exploiting vulnerable employees, by preying on customer ignorance, or by manipulating the political system in ways that reduce competition. What matters now, more than ever, is that managers embrace the responsibility of being a stewardship of values. Values are not just for the laminator. Values are beliefs that should inspire daily stories of greatness.

To ensure that Values are embraced and embedded, leaders must:

  • Show a willingness to put the interests of others above themselves
  • Commit to safeguard the future even amidst the pressures of the present
  • Take accountability of one’s actions
  • Provide rewards and recognition based on contribution, not power

These virtues seem to have been particularly scarce in recent years as we’ve witnessed Enron’s devious accounting to the financial misplay at Parmalat; from Bernie Madoff’s epic scam to the disastrous excesses at Lehman Brothers. If the global economy amplifies the impact of ethical choices, so, too does the Web. Word of mouse can quickly turn a local misdemeanor into a global cause. Nike, Apple & Dell are just a few of the companies that have been castigated for turning a blind eye to the sub par employment practices of their Asian suppliers. There are no dark corners on the Web – deceivers will be ousted.

For all these reasons we need a ‘values revolution’ in business – and it can’t come soon enough. In a 2015 Gallop study, only 15 respondents rated the ethical standards of executives as ‘high’. This lack of trust poses a threat to the growth imperative of corporations world wide. Given all that, the question for you and your organization is simple: Are you going to be a values leader or a values laggard? It’s easy to castigate a fraudulent CEO and greedy bankers, but what about you? And what about me? We can’t expect others to be good stewards if we are not. Though some executives cast a bigger moral shadow than others, we must all shoulder the responsibility to upholding the behaviours that will deliver sustainable growth.

As parents, we expend an enormous amount of energy in socializing our children. It is our role as parents to teach our children to be the stewards of their own lives. As a solo dad I have found no other solution better than to get my three children and I to develop and ‘live’ our own set of TRUEL family values (tenacity, respect, unity, excellence & love). Some have laughed at my use of values with the kids. Some have thought the approach is a bit ‘naff’. Yet it has allowed me to focus on the elements that matter. It is easy to say ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ but I have found this to be possible with the advent of the TRUEL values. It has become so ingrained that behavior for all of us becomes self-regulating.

I have adapted our TRUEL family values into how I want to interact with my clients.

Problem is, if you’re a manager or an executive, your stewardship obligations extend far beyond yourself and your family. Yet in recent years many business leaders have blithely dodged those responsibilities. That is why executives languish near the bottom of the trust table. But what, you ask, can one person do? Perhaps you’ve been told that a company’s values have to emanate from the top. That is rot. Just as turpitude compounds so does virtue. Email, town halls and even blogs can all be used as powerful amplifiers of moral conscience. In a networked world, when one brave soul speaks up, it emboldens others. Yes, moral backsliding is contagious, but so is moral courage – so exercise yours.

There are risks, of course. You might piss people off, be labeled a malcontent, or get passed over for a promotion. But no one is going to put you under house arrest. So ask your self: within my sphere of leadership:

  • What standards do I regard as inviolable?
  • Where am I unwilling to sacrifice my own integrity?
  • What is my “moral signature”?
  • What values do I want others to infer from my actions?

If your company is waning in the ‘values’ stakes it may be time to rediscover, renounce and reclaim your organization’s moral inventory

1. Rediscover what made you great

Values are pointless if they don’t underpin your purpose for being. If it doesn’t direct our efforts and decision making everyday. To bring to life, start telling stories about how individuals have connected to the values of the business.

Questions that should be asked:

  • What are my distinct physical assets?
  • What made us famous / popular in the first place?
  • What is our root strength?
  • What is unique about our heritage or provenance?
  • What principles or beliefs guide our behavior?
  • What are we for? What are we against?
  • What would we die for?
  • What beliefs seem to be at the heart of the brand?

It is important not rest on your laurels. Build the set of values into a creed, a celebration of your companies’ virtues. Values only ‘live & breathe’ when it forms the basis of your identity and only becomes sustainable when it influences your ideology or philosophy – “the way we do things around here”.

2. Renounce what made you bad

Why is it that 4 out of 10 consumers in the developed world believe that large corporations make a ‘somewhat’ or ‘generally’ positive contribution to society (2014 McKinsey study). It seems like a great majority of us believe that big companies are destined to behave badly, ravish the environment, mistreat employees and mislead customers. As ethical truants it appears that big business ranks alongside Trump and Kardashian. When it comes to “free markets”, there is a lot to be cynical about. Whether it be the food industries’ long and illicit love affair with trans fats, Facebook’s occasionally cavalier attitude towards consumer privacy or the broken promises of United Airlines to improve customer service it appears that we have been conditioned for this treachery. If individuals around the world have lost faith in business, it’s because business has misused this faith.

In our hearts, we know the future cannot be an extrapolation of the past. As the great-grandchildren of the industrial revolution, we have learned, at long last, that the heedless pursuit of more is unsustainable and ultimately unfulfilling. Grandly, our planets, our souls demand something better, something different.

Questions that should be asked:

  • Why is the paramount objective of business to make money (rather than to enhance human well being in economically and efficient means)?
  • Why are corporate leaders only accountable for their immediate effects of their actions (and not for second or third tier consequences)?
  • Why are executives evaluated and compensated primarily on short-term earnings (rather than long-term value creation)?
  • Why does big business feels it’s beefing up its social credentials by incorporating pithy mission statements and fat CSR budgets (rather than an unshakeable desire to do the right thing everytime)?
  • Why do corporates only refer to customers and consumers (rather than all those lives who are affected or impacted)?
  • Why is a company’s brand built as a marketing concoction backed by advertising dollars (rather than one which is co-created within and is embedded through ripples not rockets)?

Google is one company that is trying to reverse this situation. It has set up a social innovation unit that it describes as a think / do tank. Google Ideas is aimed at harnessing the companies’ innovation prowess and convening power in order to tackle some of societies most pressing problems. One of the first efforts was the set up of Summit Against Violent Extremism (SAVE). The event brought together a cross section of former jihadists, white supremists, gang leaders as well as victims and academic experts. Google hopes that forums such as this one will help surface radical new approaches to seemingly insurmountable issues. It is too early to tell whether this is a fad or a sustainable program; yet it illustrates the power of companies who renounce the past and focus the strength of its core on ‘doing good’ always.

Visit the website of just about any company and you will view a gushing of ‘do good’ statements and a long list of commitments. Maybe it will be the same for Google Ideas, maybe it will be more about PR spin than a paradigm shift. In any case, there are still plenty of companies where the old conceits still hold sway. What matters now is that we change that

3. Reclaim the Love

In a recent global Towers survey, it was found that only 1 in 5 employees is truly engaged, heart and soul, in their work. As a student of disruption, I’m personally aggrieved by the fact that so many people find the workplace ho hum. In the study, respondents laid much of the blame for their dissatisfaction on uncommunicative and egocentric managers, but I wonder if there’s not some deeper organizational reality that bleeds the vitality and enthusiasm out of people at work.

Here’s an experiment for you. Pull together your company’s latest annual report, its mission statement, or the transcript of a recent CEO speech. Read these documents and make a list of oft repeated words or phrases. Now do a little content analysis. What are the ideas that get a lot of airtime in your company? They’re probably captured in words like superiority, leadership, differentiation, value, focus, discipline, accountability and efficiency. Nothing wrong with this, but do these notions quicken the pulse? Do they speak to your heart?

Now think about Michelangelo, Ghandi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King and Oprah. What were the ideals that inspired these individuals to acts of greatness? Was it anything on your list of commercial values? Probably not. Remarkable contributions come from commitment to timeless human values such as Love, Truth, Beauty, Wisdom, Joy, Passion, Courage and Honor.

Questions to ask about your corporate values:

  • Are your values emotional?
  • Are they above the competitor norm?
  • Are they credible and relevant for the organization?
  • Are they something that all stakeholders would care about?

I talk to a lot of CEO’s and everyone professes a commitment to building a ‘great place to work’ – a high performing culture. But is this possible when the core values of the business are venal rather than transcendent? I don’t think so. That’s why humanizing the language and practice of management is a business imperative. A noble purpose inspires sacrifice, stimulates innovation and encourages perseverance. This being the case, it leaves me thinking:

  • Why are words like “love”, “devotion”, and “honor” so seldom used and heard within the halls of corporate?
  • Why are the ideals that matter most to human beings the ones that are most notably absent from management speak?

John Mackey, the Co-founder of Whole Foods Markets, once remarked that his goal was to build a company based on love instead of fear. Mackey’s not a utopian idealist, and his views are off putting to some. Yet few would argue with the goal of creating an organization that embodies the values of trust, generosity and vulnerability. Yet a gut level commitment to building an organization infused with the spirit of charity is far more radical and weird than it might appear.

If you doubt that, here is an experiment to try. The next time you are stuck in a meeting, wait until everyone’s eyes have glazed over from Powerpoint fatigue and then announce that what the company really needs is an injection of LOVE. When addressing a large group of managers, I often challenge them to stand up for love (or justice or truth) in just that way. “When you get back to work tell your boss that you think that your business has a love deficit”. This suggestion often provokes nervous laughter but with the reality that it wont happen. Why is it that as managers we are perfectly willing to accept the idea of a company dedicated to timeless human values, but are in general, unwilling to become a practical advocate for those values within our organization? Maybe because we are ruled by fear, not love. By definition every organization is “values driven”. The only question is, what values are in the driver seat?

Victor Frankl stated in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ -: “For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does as the unintended consequence of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself”. Which brings me back to my rant. Given all this, why is the language of business so sterile, so uninspiring, and so relentlessly banal? Is it because business is the province of analysts rather than artists? Is it because the emphasis on the rational squashes the idealism? I’m no sure. But I do know this – consumers and customers alike know there is a hole in the soul of business, and the only way for managers to change this fact, and regain the moral high ground, is to embrace what Socrates called the ‘good, the just, and the beautiful’.

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