While values are largely intended to serve as internal guideposts to inform behavior, they often become disconnected concepts, or words, sidelined by external and internal forces which yield under pressure when financial realities or difficult workplace and workforce decisions must be made, communicated and/or implemented.
A few years back, company values stood front and center at an event I facilitated. During this particular time, a well-known founder invited a group of New York City-based start-up CEOs to a private discussion around the importance of company values as a critical lever in building, growing, scaling, and sustaining their respective companies. Attendees shared their journeys of defining, clarifying, and updating company values. They shared stories about personal values and motivators, their biases toward and against certain values, the challenges of getting values right and internalized, and the wariness and cynicism around the full gamut of the values conversation, when time horizon targets for company exits could be just three to seven years.
- What if I do not, or am not able to, practice the values we espouse?
- Are values just an expedient way to attract and motivate people to join us?
- Are the values we espouse tools of the HR trade and illuminated because we “have to”?
- Are values strong enough to guide us through down times or through tough decisions?
- Is the process of values design better when our people define them, the executive team, or just me alone? Some sort of blend?
Doing The Work To Sustain Values
For over three decades, I’ve engaged in value design and implementation processes across a range of industries, workplaces, company growth stages, and cultures. If there were one unsurprising takeaway from the collective of these experiences, especially in uncertain times, is the existence, practice, and modeling of values are rarely sustained or fully actualized as they were originally intended. The main issue is a lack of CEO and executive team commitment, fortitude, follow-through, or a visible misalignment between the words and actions of leadership.
How can high growth company CEOs practice and sustain values through uncertainty?
Consider two CEO clients.
The “Solo Pilot”
This first-time CEO took a direct and singular approach within the first forty-five days in “the seat”. He crafted and communicated a foundational set of decisions including a “new” set of values aligned to the next stage of company growth. Simple and straightforward, he assumed, this was his way to take charge and direct top-down. I asked him why he chose to act so fast, independently, and without context or feedback. An action-oriented executive, he shared that it had worked in his prior companies.
Six months into his tenure, he recognized a material disconnect as he became more aware of the conflict between inherited company culture, his forward intent, and his execution approach. After facilitating several sessions for the CEO and his executive team, he recognized the need to pivot and sponsored a cross-functional team of front-line employees and started a new full-company process to revisit and reclarify values. The updated values were iterated, more accurately aligned with the new version of the company to which everyone aspired and were fully supported by the ELT with clearer lines of measurement and accountability. This time, company values reflected the voice of all, and not merely the voice of one. They are built on a stronger foundation.
The “Conflicted Executive”
A Founder/CEO aspires to build the “next great organization” inclusive of integrated company values. A strong believer in employee empowerment and engagement, this CEO sought values input from the shop floor to C-suite, challenging everyone to be mission-driven and asking what values they believed their customers would want to see the organization model and practice.
The company, like many in the high-growth arena, has short term challenges. While the company is growing, achieving a manageable run rate includes the need for staff cuts. The CEO acknowledged that while values had driven the company to its present state, he felt somewhat disconnected from those very values while having to make some tough choices.
He and I discussed why he felt partially alienated from his organizational values, and the impact or repercussions of what felt to him like a disconnected approach. Ultimately, he recognized that company values could serve as a guiding framework by which he could communicate the why, when, what and how around why change was needed – inclusive of cost cuts, how some staff would be affected by imminent changes, and the value and importance of remaining staff coming together and rallying during an appreciable period of turbulence.
Step Up. Show Up.
As a high-growth company CEO, you are likely experiencing some form of business or workplace turbulence. If you’re “on your game” you and your leadership team have crafted company values with cross-organizational buy-in and adoption which permeate the culture, are being modeled, rewarded, celebrated, and measured across and top-down. Still, I imagine there is work to be done.
While seemingly “in place” when things are operating smoothly, never under-value company values or what they mean to those in your charge.
Now, as much as ever, is the time to live and lead through your values.
Likely, more than you know.