Establish Values and Put Them in Writing

May 20, 2019

By Paul Smith

Learn how story telling can build values. As an example, the author shows how to communicate integrity. Margaret Parkin is a trainer, coach, and bestselling author in the United Kingdom. She tells of a large supermarket chain there that claims the following story as part of its corporate heritage. A new CEO had been appointed who believed strongly in putting the customer first. One of the policies he implemented to support this value involved use of the parking lot. Until then, parking privileges were based on hierarchy. Senior managers got spots closest to the front door. Junior employees parked farther away. But the new policy required all managers to park at the farthest end of the lot to open up spaces for customers at the front. It also gave management a daily opportunity to see the condition of the parking lot and grounds firsthand.

Soon thereafter, the CEO was out for store visits and arrived at one location during a torrential downpour. Without an umbrella, he had a difficult choice to make. Does he park at the end of the lot and ruin his expensive suit? Or does he park up front in one of the many empty spaces and consider this a justified exception to the rule? You can imagine the employees nervously waiting inside for the CEO to arrive, and watching his car drive around, wondering where he would park. A few moments later, they had their answer. From a distance of more than 100 yards, in the pouring rain they saw the dark figure of a man in a suit and tie running toward the store, completely drenched.

This particular supermarket happened to carry men’s clothing—albeit only bargain brands. So he was able to buy a suit to change into before starting his tour. But the sight of the chief executive arriving at their front door, soaked from head to toe and out of breath, surely brought a round of muffled laughter. As did seeing him moments later in an ill-fitting suit much cheaper than the one he’d walked in with. The story spread like wildfire. And while much of it was good humor at the expense of the CEO, the inescapable fact behind it was that he still put the customer first, knowing full well it would cost him a new suit, as well as a healthy dent to his dignity.

In addition to its entertainment value, that story has probably done more to instill the value of putting the customer first than all the memos, speeches, training sessions, and policy documents combined. And all for nothing more than the cost of a cheap suit.

Every company has them—corporate value statements. Sometimes they’re called company values and principles, or simply what we believe. But values are only words on a piece of paper until they’re tested. That is, until someone is put in a difficult position of choosing between doing the hard right or the easy wrong. The easy wrong is usually more attrac­tive in the short term: It’s more profitable, more convenient, helps you avoid an embarrassment, or just makes you look good.

The CEO of that supermarket chain had a tough choice to make. Because he chose the hard right, he earned himself and the company a reputation of putting the customer first. It also showed that nobody is immune to the policy, not even the CEO. Putting the words “The cus­tomer always comes first” on the company’s value statement posted in the break room won’t do much to help keep that reputation alive. The telling and retelling of this story will.

That’s why stories are uniquely called for when trying to establish values in an organization. Only a story can convey the uncomfortable predicament required to truly define a value. Annette Simmons calls such stories “values-in-action” stories. They show what happens when you put your values into action and act on them.

Let’s look at a very typical corporate value: integrity.

At most companies, each value would come with a short list of defin­ing characteristics. Here’s how Procter & Gamble defines integrity. But it’s probably not too dissimilar from many other companies:

  • We always try to do the right thing.
  • We are honest and straightforward with each other.
  • We operate within the letter and spirit of the law.
  • We uphold the values and principles of P&G in every action and decision.

Those are good values by anyone’s standard. But if you find yourself facing a difficult decision, will these bullet points really help you make the right one? Instead, read the following story from one of the most ad­mired companies in the world—Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. It should give you a more clear understanding of what in­tegrity means at Northwestern.

Northwestern was founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1857. Two years later, Wisconsin suffered its first catastrophic train accident, killing 14 passengers, including two Northwestern policyholders. Together, their claims totaled $3,500. Unfortunately, the company had only $2,000 in assets. That was a tough situation for company president Samuel Daggett and Northwestern’s trustees. Should they limit the settlement to each family or have the company go into debt to make up the difference? And who’s going to loan money to a two-year-old company that’s now tech­nically insolvent anyway? Mr. Daggett and the trustees did what they knew they had to do. They personally borrowed enough money to make up the difference, waived the usual 90-day settlement period, and promptly paid the claims in full.

This story is legend at Northwestern, and its employees still tell it today. Anytime Northwestern claims adjusters are in the difficult position of having to choose between doing the right thing for the policyholder and doing the profitable thing for the company, all they have to do is re­member this story.

Stories like this give meaning to the value statement that bullet points cannot. Somewhere in your company, stories like this exist. Find them. Celebrate them. Share them.

Other Company Values

As we’ve seen so far, stories are ideal for illustrating ethical or moral val­ues. But what about company values that don’t involve defining right from wrong? Read the following story from John Pepper’s book What Really Matters, about the world’s most successful retailer. What corporate values do you see?

The grocery retail chain H.E. Butt was founded in 1905 in San An­tonio, Texas. Today H-E-B is one of the leading retailers in the region and operates over 315 stores throughout Texas and Northern Mexico. Fifty-seven years after H.E. Butt began, in 1962 Sam Walton opened his first store (later named Walmart) in the neighboring state of Arkansas. Within two decades, Walmart had expanded across the country and had overtaken H-E-B as the largest retailer in Texas. It would be accurate, then, to say that H-E-B’s CEO (and grandson of the founder) Charles Butt and Sam Walton were fierce competitors—a fact that makes the fol­lowing tale all the more impressive.

In an effort to learn from his now-larger competitor, Charles Butt once called Sam Walton and asked if he could bring his leadership team to Walmart’s headquarters on a learning mission. Sam said that he wasn’t sure if he could help, but he’d be happy to try. On the scheduled day, Charles Butt and his senior executives arrived and went to meet Sam at one of his local stores. As Charles walked in the front door, he could see Sam at the end of a long aisle deeply engaged in conversation with a shopper. Not wanting to waste any time, Charles walked up the aisle with his team. When Sam saw them, he said, “Charles, I’ll be with you in a moment. I’m talking to this young woman.” He was trying to sell her an ironing board cover.

After a few more minutes of conversation, the woman put the ironing board cover in her cart and pushed off toward the register. Sam turned to Charles and asked him with great seriousness, “Charles, do you know how many worn-out ironing board covers there are in this country? We’re going to sell a million this month!”

Charles commented later that he had no doubt Walmart would sell those million ironing board covers. And in fact, it did. That’s what inti­mate contact with the business can achieve—which is only one of many lessons Charles Butt and his team learned that day.

Now, imagine you’re a current employee at Walmart. What lessons about company values could you glean from that story? Here’s my list:

  1. Other retailers are our competitors, not our enemies. We work in the same industry with a shared purpose: to serve the customer. If we can help each other achieve that goal without giving away our competitive se­crets, we should.
  2. The customer is #1. When approached by the CEO of H-E-B and his senior executives, all of whom he had invited to fly hundreds of miles to meet with him, Sam Walton chose instead to make the CEO wait while he continued a conversation with a customer.
  3. Understanding the customer’s wants and needs is important. How did Sam know there were so many worn-out ironing board covers in the coun­try? He asked.
  4. Persistence pays off. Valuing persistence means you don’t give up until you’ve helped the customer find what he’s looking for. Sam didn’t quit until the woman was satisfied with her choice and put the ironing board cover in her cart.
  5. Passion wins. Out of the billions of dollars of merchandise Walmart sells every year, Sam had set a goal specifically for how many ironing board covers he wanted to sell (a million a month), and he was clearly excited by the challenge. Passion is contagious. Spread it and you’ll be amazed what you can accomplish.

The point is, even a simple story can convey many diverse values. Decide what values you want your organization to have. Then find and capture stories that illustrate them.

Excerpted, with permission of the publisher, from Lead with a Story: A Gide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire by Paul Smith. Copyright 2012, Paul Smith, Published by AMACOM.

About the Author(s)

Paul Smith is director of Consumer and Communications Research at Procter & Gamble and a highly rated keynote speaker and trainer on leadership and communication.