The Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.
I’ve long been a student of the values that organizations espouse. They are after all an attempt to encapsulate the accepted and aspirational behaviors of the firm’s employees and officers. And while the words on the wall or in the placard are typically interesting, noble and even somewhat predictable, what’s truly fascinating is to compare and contrast the behaviors of people in an organization to the values statements hanging on the wall.
In too many organizations, the values statements are corporate furniture. They’re décor…eye candy and while people see them every day, when questioned on what their firm’s values are, many employees will stumble and stammer. That’s too bad, because the values of a firm are powerful tools, intended to aid people as they navigate complex issues of strategy, talent identification and development and problem-solving.
It’s been my experience that organizations where the values are clear, meaningful and importantly, lived, are better able to sustain success, navigate the problems and challenges that arise in the course of time and business. And while my observations are entirely that…just observations not backed by research, it’s been my experience that firms with strong, clear, well-lived values create environments where people who relate to those values enjoy themselves in pursuit of their vocations and assignments. That’s a fancy way of saying that people enjoy themselves when they align their own internal value sets with those of the organization they work for. The output of all of that enjoyment and alignment can absolutely be higher performance for the firm over time.
I’ve helped a number of firms discover their values over my career and while yes, the output included something framed and hung on a wall, the experience of discovering and then describing the existing, often unstated and aspirational values that mattered to all employees (from the board-room to the shop floor) was humbling. Many people want to believe in something and they want to believe they are committing in their work to something they can both build and be proud of. It is hard to be proud of an organization that either appears valueless or, displays behaviors that are in opposition to our own values.
And from a practical perspective, the values are powerful tools to apply in the identification and development of talent. They create filters for hiring and foundational tools for evaluation and development. And yes, they are important in voting people off the island as well. While I’m momentarily channeling my inner Jack Welch, I don’t care if you’re an A player, if you operate in opposition to well-described standards for behavior, you’re toxic and you’re off my team.
Finally, where I’ve seen the values most…valuable (sorry!) has been in navigating challenging circumstances. When the market changes or the existing strategy runs out of gas, it’s easy for firms and their leaders and managers to flail and then fail. Bad choices become tempting as quick fixes and band aids. It’s easy for collaboration to break down into confrontation and conflict, particularly in boardrooms or the senior management arena, and in all of these circumstances, strong, clear values serve as powerful guides to right and wrong. We all need those guides in our lives from time to time and organizations navigating stormy seas are no different.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
At the end of the day, we as managers are accountable for bringing our firm’s values to life…and of course to helping refine what those often slightly too lofty statements mean in the context of desired and accepted behaviors. We’re accountable for putting the values on display every single day…not so much be parroting them, but more so by living them in every encounter and with every decision. Values are powerful performance tools that when used for good, can make a firm and team very good indeed.
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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.