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Lead a Positive Culture Through Purpose and Values

Have the courage to make painful decisions

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The need for a clearly defined corporate culture is compelling. Put groups of people together to work and a culture will naturally emerge. But will it be one that serves your organization well? 

Determining the desired culture for your organization is one of the most important things you do as a leader. But understand that culture is an emotional mindset. When employees think about your culture, they are deciding if they believe in what your organization does, if they like being there, if they respect how the organization makes decisions, and agree with the way the organization treats stakeholders. These are not business operations questions; they are emotional questions that require answers that satisfy those emotions. To make emotional connections, leaders need to focus on their purpose and the organization’s values.

Start with Purpose

Purpose is all about the “why” of being in business. As a leader, you need to clearly articulate what problem you are trying to address and the value you are adding to customers, and to the world. Without a clearly defined purpose, employees have no shared intent; there is no central rallying cry for your employees. When you let your purpose drive your business strategy, you take a more unified, holistic approach to decision-making and actions.


A clearly articulated purpose inspires your team to do good work for you because it articulates the work you do for someone else. Leaders need to guide discussion with groups of employees around your purpose and its relevance in the world. Here are some questions you can use to guide such a discussion: 
 

  • What do we do?
  • Why do we do it?
  • Why is it important to others?
  • If we went away tomorrow, what would our customers lose?
  • How do we make our customers feel?

Define Your Values

Once you have collaboratively defined and shared your purpose, it is time to identify core company values. Values are not the same as beliefs. It is easy for beliefs to change or to be changed when they are painful, costly, or simply inconvenient. Consider the infamous downfall of Enron. The company created a sixty-four-page ethics manual. It talked a good game but didn’t honor any of the ethics it supposedly embraced. 

Leaders must make sure values are clearly articulated in terms of behaviors and expectations. It is not enough to say that a key value is innovation. Define what you mean by innovation. What do innovative people do? How do they behave? Without such direction, it is nearly impossible to hold people accountable to the values you desire. Clarity is also critical for pinpointing the right talent fit, for recognizing and rewarding the right behaviors, and for overall sustainment of the culture you desire. 

No matter how much time you and your team invest in defining your values, if you do not put together a strategy to communicate the message, you will not successfully create the culture you want. 

Along with building an initial communications plan to showcase your values, develop a plan to integrate the values into your organizational processes. In fact, you should spend more time on this alignment than on crafting perfect statements and value definitions. 

Talk with employees and customers about your core values. Ask them what gets in the way of living them. For example, let’s say innovation is a core value. If employees are punished when they make a mistake, how much innovation are you going to see? 

Whenever a team or department comes up with a new process, ask them to hold up the values mirror. Ask some key questions:

  • What problem is this new process trying to solve?
  • What is the cause of that problem?
  • Will this new process eliminate that cause?
  • What improvements does the new process offer us?
  • How does this process impact customers?
  • Which of our core values are impacted by this process? Are any negatively impacted?
  • Is there a better way?

Accountability Is Essential

Leaders also need to own this process. At every executive retreat, take time to review four to six processes that are about to be implemented. Ask the questions listed above. Have a frank and open discussion, and identify which processes need to be reworked. 

Many years ago, one of my team members was head of human resources for a multi-state manufacturing company. An employee approached her to report that her boss, a vice president and company officer, had been offering career advancement in exchange for sexual favors. This led to an extensive, months-long investigation during which other unethical behaviors were uncovered. 

The GM and my colleague presented their findings to the executive team, including the CEO. A few executives were concerned about firing the misbehaving VP because of the key role he played in the company. One suggested transferring him to another division across the country. The debate continued for a few minutes. Then the CEO interrupted. “I think this discussion has gone on long enough. Does this man support our values?” There was dead silence. Until the CEO himself provided the answer. “He does not. Not in any manner. He is fired. And I do not care if he is an officer. He is fired without severance. Tomorrow. Bring him in and tell him our decision.”

It takes courage to make painful decisions that honor your core values. But if you do not, employees will not trust your leadership. Purpose and values are the essence of your company’s identity and provide numerous advantages when you are trying to build or rebuild your culture. They make it easier to make tough decisions, to educate clients on what you stand for, and to identify the right employees for your organization. Our business environment today is extremely competitive and defining who you are and what you stand for give you a competitive advantage.

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