SETTING YOUR CORE VALUES

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In my last article, I asked the question: “Do you want true accountability?” Well, do you?

Remember the quote I cited from the book The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni: “So many leaders struggle to embrace organizational health (core values) because they quietly believe they are too sophisticated, too busy or too analytical to bother with it. In other words, they think it’s beneath them.”

Winter2013_Complete_Page_063Do you think core values are beneath you?

Consider a story about Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric. Welch tells the tale of an incident during his early days at that company in a book, The Greatest Business Decisions of All Time (by Vern Harnish and the editors of Fortune magazine). Welch describes the following situation to the book’s author:

“You’re a newly minted CEO with a struggling global company. You make a tough call to lay off more than 100,000 people while simultaneously deciding to invest $50 million in an executive education center. Are you flippin’ nuts? … [but]I used GE’s Crotonville center as a vehicle to teach where we were going and why.”

Early on, Welch realized he needed a place to ground his executive team to the values and the vision of the organization. Thus, it was worth spending $50 million — even at a time when he was laying off 100,000 people — to make sure his executives knew where they were going and how they were going to get there. He was building accountability in his team by making sure staffers knew the values and the vision of GE. It was his first step in gaining accountability.

In my last article, I asked you to test your core values to see whether they were real by asking your key executives to name them for you. When you asked that question, did you get the answers you were looking for? If not, maybe your stated core values aren’t your REAL core values. Either way, you need to start the process of finding your core values by looking for them. Then, once you think you found them, test the results to see if you’re right. After you know you’ve found the real ones, the true challenge begins. That’s because you now have to start living them.

Let’s start with how to find your core values.

Several techniques are available, but I will share a few approaches I have used with executive teams with great success. First is the “Mission to Mars” exercise outlined by Vern Harnish in the book, Mastering the Rockefeller Habits. This approach was first suggested by Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great.

Start by gathering a representative group of employees or managers, including your senior management team. Instruct everyone to pretend that a team of Martian anthropologists is studying your business and trying to understand its culture. Ask each person in the room to write up a list of five employees you will send to Mars to illustrate your culture to the Martians there. Explain that Martians don’t speak English, so the individuals you send will have to easily exhibit your core values exclusively through their actions. As your team is considering whom to send, warn team members not to choose people simply based on their looks or how they present themselves. Instead, instruct them to focus on choosing the five people who will give the best sense of what’s most positive about your casino. (Make sure the lists are destroyed after this exercise. You don’t want employees seeing this list!)

Now, have each team member share his list. Identify which three employees were mentioned most often. Then, start a conversation about the three employees by asking the following questions:

  • Who are they?
  • How do they go about their work?
  • What would customers or their coworkers say about them?
  • Why are they important to the company?

The answers to these questions should give you your values. As you are writing down the answers, don’t wordsmith the responses; just write them exactly as they naturally were mentioned. (You don’t want to ruin the flow of the conversation with any interruptions or clarifications.) You want real words that live in the company. So don’t worry if they are not perfectly polished the way an Ivy League English graduate would state them.

Winter2013_Complete_Page_073Once you have a comprehensive list, start to define them. You know the definitions are on target when the team starts FEELING the definition is right. How will they feel it? The hair on their arms will rise with the goose bumps they’re getting. I always go around the room and ask each participant if they live the proposed value in their own life. If they do, you have probably found the correct values.

(If you don’t have the luck you hoped for with this exercise, try a different approach. Reverse the method and track down five employees who recently left your casino’s employment and have a conversation of why they left or were asked to leave.)

The second approach I use the most is to gather the leadership team and ask them to think about the three employees they would like to clone. I then give them sticky notes and ask them to write down a common trait of each of these individuals on individual sticky notes. I usually get from three to five sticky notes back from each participant.

We then spend the next 30 to 60 minutes matching up each sticky note to eliminate duplicates. We usually end up with five to 15 different common statements or words. We call these potential values. I then ask each member to independently write a definition for each of these values. I have found some of them never get defined, some of them have long definitions, and some have short definitions. We share the definitions and select the one that resonates best with most of the team members. And don’t worry — there is always one. If there is not one, then you haven’t hit on your real values. We craft a definition, being careful not to wordsmith the definitions, and I challenge team members not to use platitudes. This list then becomes the leadership team’s core values.

I use this approach most often because most leadership teams with which I work, try to control the core-values-development process when they attempt to perform these techniques on their own. I have had a few teams use both my sticky-note approach and then the “Mission to Mars” approach. Between the two methods, those firms usually can find a core value or two that the executive team missed. Another great approach I personally have never used but have seen employed by Tony Hsieh at Zappos (and is outlined in his book Delivering Happiness) is the process previously mentioned in which you make a list of all the employees you want to clone who most likely represent your culture. When Hsieh used it, he then put together a list of ex-employees who did not fit the Zappos’ culture and tried to determine where their values disconnected from the company’s. Next, he asked every employee for his or her list of potential core values. He ended up with a list of 37 core values. After his team had that list, they started thinking about it and asking themselves which values were the most important. They focused on values that truly represented who they wanted to be. Over the next year, the employees helped him and his team refine the list through several email feedback sessions. A year later, the 10 core values were set.

In Delivering Happiness, Hsieh wrote, “The commitment part was the most challenging part.” He continued, “A lot of corporations have ‘core values’ or ‘guiding principles,’ but the problem is that they’re usually very lofty-sounding, and they read like a press release that the marketing department put out.” His point was that these so-called core values end up becoming meaningless — a plaque on the wall — because the words have no meaning to the employees. More importantly, the leadership in the company never lives the core values and never spends time bringing them to life, so they die a slow death on the wall.

Don’t let your values die on the wall. After you find them, test them. Instruct your executive team that you expect them — along with yourself — to start living them for a few months. If you find your team is challenged in trying to follow them, then they may not be the right values. If you do live them, then roll them out to the whole company. Build stories around the employees in your casino who are living the values and share those stories any way you can.

One last note: Remember the quote I shared with you in my last article by Vern Harnish in his book Mastering the Rockefeller Habits? “Use core values to parent a great company!”

Anyone with children will recognize the fundamentals of this. They are:

1. Enforce a handful of rules (core values).

2. Repeat yourself a lot.

3. Act consistently with those rules (which is why you better have only a few rules).

For most leaders, points No. 2 and No. 3 are the challenge. My personal opinion, however, is that No. 3 is the hardest, because everyone is watching everything you do. Every executive team I have had the opportunity to help finds the process of identifying their values to be one of their most rewarding and important experiences as a leader. Once your values are alive and well, the rewards will be all around you. And the biggest of these rewards will be accountability.

David Chavez is a Certified Gazelles International Coach and Vistage Chair with diverse coaching, leadership and management experience. David is the owner of Assured Strategies. He spends the majority of his time guiding executive teams on how to build a team to execute strategy. He also facilitates the strategic planning sessions and meetings. David is known for rolling up his sleeves to help clients develop a winning plan to increase profit give the team their time back so they can take control of their life.

David brings over 20 years of entrepreneurial experience to the table with him to help his clients. David has shared many of the frustrations his clients have with growing their businesses while growing his own midsized CPA Firm. He has helped over 1,000 businesses over his career. He has also served as an advisor and on the boards of many public and private companies. He knows teamwork and strategy from the “been their done that” position, but he realizes he has not seen it all. His experience in leadership and the client service business puts him in a unique position to help his clients. Having a business that challenged his abilities as a leader gave him the desire to understand his shortcomings and develop his strengths. He is able to help his client’s do the same. He possesses a strong knowledge of finance but his ability to teach and guide teams to extraordinary results is his passion. 

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