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Taking Organizational Values into the Real World

A sales manager read an article about his company's refusal to deal with any country where "under the table" money was part of the negotiation process. He circled the article and wrote the words “Right On!” in the column, and mailed it to his CEO. The attached note said: "I'm proud to work in a company whose values reflect my own."

Webster defines value as "a principle, standard, or quality considered inherently worthwhile or desirable." The root is the Latin valor, which means strength. The best values serve as a source of strength for an enterprise or an individual. And as leadership effectiveness evolves from command and control to collaboration, the key to bonding people to the goals of the organization automatically becomes the intangibles—relationships, commitments, and shared values.

Values are never not present. Every organization has them. Sometimes they are created with intention and sometimes they are the unhappy result of poorly chosen decisions and actions. But whether they are established deliberately or by accident, values are always present.

So given that they are inevitably going to be part of the company, why don't more leaders actively create the healthiest possible values? Because doing so takes an enormous amount of time, focus, and effort.

Values written on a plaque or laminated card are meaningless. (This is where leaders may start, but it is only a beginning.) Values must be integrated into processes, policies, and organizational behavior before they become tangible—a shared understanding of "how we do things around here."

Achieving this kind of integration takes much more than the crafting of a values statement. It takes an all-encompassing strategic campaign. There are six steps to creating such a campaign.

1. Walk before you talk.
When a company wants to highlight any core value—we'll use collaboration as an example--I recommend holding back all official communication until the following goals have been met:

—Members of the senior management team fully understand how their behavior has to change to be perceived as supportive of knowledge sharing.

—There is a system developed (or at least in the works) for teaching collaborative skills to employees and a process for educating managers as collaborative coaches.

—There is an appropriate shift from individual to team accomplishments in rewards and recognition programs.

2. Tie values to business goals.
All core values need to be connected to strategic objectives. With the value of diversity, for instance, leaders need to present the business case, explaining why diversity is not only the right thing to do, but also why it's crucial to the organization's success. Diversity should be positioned as a positive force for bringing in new ideas, fresh perspectives, better customer service (especially as the customer base also becomes more diverse), and more effective problem-solving potential.

3. Paint a picture of values in action.
People need to see how values actually operate in their day-to-day experience. If the organizational value is work-life balance, leaders need to identify specific behaviors that demonstrate that balance. Better still, they need to find organizational examples where the company's objectives are well served by a flexible work arrangement—and tell those real-life workplace stories.

4. Develop the corporate mechanisms that bring values into reality.
3M allows scientists to spend 15% of their time working on whatever interests them, requires divisions to generate 30% of their revenues from new products introduced within the past four years, has an active internal venture capital fund, and grants prestigious awards for innovations. Even without seeing 3M’s formal "values statement," I know what they value.

5. Create linkage.
Ultimately, the leader's role is to create linkage between an organization and its employees. This goes beyond making sure that everyone knows where the company is headed, what's expected of them, and how their contributions fit into the overall strategy, although all of those concepts are vitally important. True linkage—the kind that bonds committed employees to the success of the organization—comes when there is a deep connection between the values of the company and those of the work force. As a leader, the most effective way of developing this powerful connection is to encourage employees to clarify their own personal values and to see how they fit within the values of the organization.

Leaders: Take part in this linkage exercise:

  • Define your personal values.  How do you define success in life?  How do you want to be remembered?
  • Decide what your professional "purpose" is.  What do you want to accomplish in your career?  What are you passionate about achieving?
  • Describe your ideal working environment. Under what working conditions are you the happiest and most productive?
  • Write out the values and principles of the organization. What attitudes and behaviors does the company value?  What organizational principles would you be fired for violating?
  • Link your values to the organization.  How do the values of the organization reflect your own values?  How does the company afford you opportunities to live your values?

6. Track your "values alignment."
Leaders who utilize a "say/do" survey to periodically monitor employee perception can make sure that the organization stays on track. Such an inquiry identifies values that have been integrated into organizational behavior—and shows where gaps still exist. Typical survey questions are: "This is what our values state. What actions do you see us taking that are in alignment with our values? What behaviors are out of alignment?"

The six steps described here outline an undertaking that is both difficult and time-consuming. But the payoff is an enterprise with cohesive values. Cohesive values can turn an organization into a hologram in which every part contains enough information in condensed form to describe the whole. A hologram is a wonderful image for an organization with strong values. An observer can see the entire organization's culture and ways of doing business by watching one individual, whether a production-floor employee, front desk receptionist, or a senior manager. Customers, suppliers, partners, and other employees will know that they can count on reliable and behavior. Now that's something to value!