The following is the fifth and final in a series of articles by Lisa Huetteman
In previous articles in this series, I’ve shared how successful companies have clearly defined, effectively communicated, and comprehensively supported core values. But in the final analysis, actions speak louder than words. To be authentic, core values must be lived.
Values-centered leadership demands a non-negotiable commitment to core values. Rationalizing decisions that violate core values is the first step toward undermining trust and respect for you as a leader and your company as a whole. Deviations from values may start small. Like a snag in a sweater, they initially may be barely noticeable. But left unchecked, snags can unravel until the sweater is unattractive at best and non-functional at worst.
Honoring core values can be challenging. Just as a keel places a sailboat in dynamic tension with the wind, core values place an organization in dynamic tension with the prevailing winds that swirl about in the world of business. There will be times—many times perhaps—when disregarding core values will seem like the most prudent thing to do.
When honoring core values requires terminating a key employee or turning down an alluring business opportunity, even well-intentioned leaders can waiver. They justify compromising their core values with rationalizations such as efficiency, productivity, profitability, survivability, or even worse, “Everyone does it.” Failure to honor core values is worse than failure to have them. Such hypocrisy undermines respect, creates confusion, damages morale, and destroys trust.
To guard against compromise in your company, establish an accountability structure that starts at the top. Honoring core values requires conviction and courage, reinforced by accountability. Really successful businesses are led by confident leaders who welcome open, honest dialogue. They believe in holding others accountable and they are willing to be held accountable.
Accountability strengthens commitment. Without accountability, day-to-day pressures can easily override an allegiance to core values. Internal accountability is vitally important, but it’s only half of the equation. Just as companies use internal and external auditors to preserve financial integrity, organizations need internal and external accountability to safeguard their commitment to core values. Boards, auditors, peers, and other types of accountability partners provide detached objectivity that will help the organization stay true to its values.
Shared core values help make accountability possible. When all of the members of an organization are accountable to the same standards, mutual accountability—up, down, and across the organization—becomes natural, objective, and supportive. When shared values are absent, accountability can become threatening, subjective, and confrontational. Honoring your core values means striving to adhere to them more perfectly. Perfection is impossible, of course, but striving for perfection at all times is eminently practical. Continue to improve by honestly admitting mistakes and diligently looking for areas that need improvement.
My garden needs to be consistently checked or the weeds will take over. Likewise, core values need constant attention, or they’ll cease to be honored. The process is unending, but the rewards are unlimited.
Does adherence to core values always result in maximum profits? Sometimes it doesn’t—at least in the short term. When you’re in the midst of a values-based decision, you can never be sure of the financial outcome. Although I’m convinced that living your core values promotes sustainable profitability over the long term, maximum financial rewards are never guaranteed. Although I’m all for profits, it doesn’t work to honor values for the sake of tangible rewards alone. You must be willing to hold fast to your core values regardless.
By definition, values reflect what you believe is “right,” not merely what you think is “useful.” If you try to live core values based on their usefulness, you will toss them overboard whenever they seem to be “unreasonable” or “impractical.” Disposable core values are not really core values at all. They’re simply policies, and somewhat flexible ones at that. True core values, on the other hand, are beyond compromise. They are so fundamentally a part of your company’s identity that you will not deviate from them—ever!
Although I firmly believe that living core values promotes maximum business success—and my definition of business success includes profitability—I’ve observed that organizations that benefit most from living their core values tend to define success in light of their values. They’re working for rewards that are substantially greater than profitability alone.
I encourage you to find out for yourself how valuable core values can be. I believe your company will be more prosperous in tangible terms. But even more important, I believe you will grow to appreciate that the greatest value of core values is ultimately in the values themselves.