After guiding a senior leadership team to helping them identify their values, I proceeded to take them through a process of defining specifically how they would ensure that they would live these values in their leadership, first as an SLT and then throughout the company.
Like most organizations, the value of “respect” was up near the top.
And that’s when it got sticky.
“What about Bob?” the COO asked.
“What about Bob?” I responded.
“He heads up our main sales division, and it’s well known that he’s one of the most disrespectful people in the company. We can’t fire him. He singly brings in more money to the company than our entire sales team.”
“You don’t necessarily need to fire him,” I said. “But if you don’t do something about this, then I suggest you take the word respect off your values list and replace it with the word profit. Be honest about what you truly value.”
They decided to fire him, and the entire sales team started to flourish. They got the message that the senior leaders were serious about the values they were touting.
In walking organizations through the values journey over the years, I’ve learned five things:
- Make it real. It’s been trendy over the past couple of decades to re-brand your values every five years. It’s also been a lucrative business for consultants. While having clearly defined values is important, you make it real by involving the front-lines in developing them and creating meaningful and accountable culture conversations with everyone. If the end result isn’t real and relevant at the field level, you’re wasting your time and breeding cynicism.
- You don’t really know what your values are until they’re tested under pressure. If your values haven’t come into conflict lately, if you haven’t had some tough conversations about the contradictions in what you claim to be important, if you haven’t had some uncomfortable value discussions, you probably haven’t taken your values seriously enough. Don’t mistake value statements for real values.
- Just as you can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do, you can’t build a reputation in your organization on espoused values. For example, if you’re serious about creating a safe workplace, don’t tell people “We’re going to be #1 in safety.” Tell people what you are willing to pay to get there.
- Values based leadership is built on the foundation of values based living. When we clarify our own values and develop a process for holding ourselves accountable to live in alignment with those values, we make better leaders in every aspect of our lives.
- When it comes to values, most of us really are doing the best we can. Let’s grant each other a bit of grace and support each other to use values to strengthen our organization, bolster our relationships and our fortify our resolve to be better people.