Making Values Have More Value

May 25, 2013

square dealA vital function of leadership is to instill a coherent set of values in the organization. Notice I did not say the function is to “articulate” good values. Too many leaders believe the job is done when there is a set of values hanging on the wall. Unfortunately, that attitude does more harm than good because any hypocrisy in living the values ends up undermining the whole concept.

Leaders need to exemplify the values and talk about them at every opportunity for them to become firmly planted into the hearts of the organization’s people. Here are some tips that can make your values shine and create a foundational bedrock for the work of your business.

Create the values together

Values do not come from one person. They are aggregated into being through a process of creation and selection. There are literally thousands of values one could choose. Words like integrity, loyalty, respect, trust, and flexibility are frequent choices. Less often used, but equally effective are words like honor, dependability, family, innovation, and transparency. It is important for people in the organization to participate in the crafting of a master brainstorm list and the voting on how to winnow the list to a vital few.

Don’t have too many values

To be most helpful, values must reside in the hearts of the population and be simple enough to remember. It is a mistake to have a dozen or more values for an organization. Few people will be able to remember the entire set. I recommend five values, or six at the most. These will form the core of why we do what we do. Then it is a simple matter of doing a pareto vote to cull out the less important candidates from the longer list.

Talk about the values

Make sure everyone knows the values by communicating them at every possible opportunity. Say things like, “We have decided to admit our mistake because one of our core values is transparency.” As people hear a value reinforced every time it is modeled by leaders in the organization, it becomes stronger and more useful to the business.

Reinforce people who point out inconsistencies

If an action or decision does not appear to be consistent with a stated value, it is important to encourage and reinforce employees who point out the apparent contradiction. If employees are stifled or punished when they voice concern over a possible lapse, then they will clam up, and the values will quickly lose their potency for the organization. If people are rewarded for bringing up concerns, then the values will spring to life and remain vibrant.

Allow infrequent changes

Values form a bedrock for the actions of a community. It is important that these statements of intent have stability, and yet it is a mistake to be totally rigid. If an additional value to the current list would help clarify some common activities, feel free to add a new value with great ceremony. Beyond some number, it is wise to retire a less relevant value when adding a new one. This can be tricky because no value is totally useless. If you retire a value, make sure to state it is still important, just less frequently called upon in the current environment.

Reinforce actions consistent with the values

The easiest way to perpetuate actions consistent with the values is to reinforce people when the follow them. A simple thank you is not sufficient reinforcement here. The conversation should sound more like this, “That was a great point Martha. When you recognized Ed for not backing down in the face of pressure from the angry employee, you demonstrated consistency, which is one of our key values.”

The magic in having values is teaching all people to model them every day, but that is only half of the job. You must make the connection between actions and values highly visible at every opportunity to ensure the values drive the right behaviors far into the future.

Cosme was a Nocturnal Person

July 26, 2010

Central story – shared with my online Transformational Leadership Graduate Level Class at 3 am the morning after a program on “Telling Stories” by Kelly Swanson at the National Speakers Association Convention in Orlando Florida on July 17, 2010.

Cosme was a nocturnal person. Nobody ever saw him in the light of day. This little old wrinkle-faced man with only three teeth was always dressed the same. He wore white pants and sandals. He always had one of those large white Mexican hats and a Serape that looked like it had been through many long nights keeping him warm under the frigid Mexican Sky.

Cosme and my friend Bob Rule

Cosme was the “security guard” at our apartment complex in Guadalajara, when my bride and I were stationed there for Kodak in the late 70’s. The complex was always locked at night as a precaution, so we had to honk the car horn to get in after a night on the town. He sat in a lounge chair by the pool all night long waiting to hear a horn outside the gate. He would jump up and run to the gate to open it for apartment dwellers.

We always tipped Cosme two pesos when we drove in – a practice the hotel manager frowned on because he was thinking we were spoiling the man with such a huge tip. The manager wanted us to give only one peso – which at that time was the equivalent of a nickel. Any time, on any night, raining or not, you could see Cosme sitting out by the pool half hidden under his Serape to keep him warm. When we tipped him, Cosme always muttered some words we could not understand due to his bad teeth. It sounded like Hey mios do venata – muchas gracias. We finally figured out that he was saying “Que Dios lo bendiga – muchias gracias” which means, God Bless You – Thank You in Spanish.

Many times, a buddy from Kodak and I would be out with our wives and come home late at night. At the gate, we would tip Cosme as usual, and our wives would retire for the evening. We had a habit of getting a few beers and cigars and going out by the pool to keep Cosme company. He was always glad to have a beer and smoke and someone to “talk” to. It was very hard to understand the man, but perhaps through many nights and too many beers we finally found the ability to communicate with him. It turns out Cosme had an interesting life.

He had spent his entire life sleeping during the day and working outside for others all night as some kind of watchman. As a boy he would tend goats in the hills, and later he cleaned a fresh-air cafe after the bar closed for the night. Finally, he got the job at Suites Slila as a night watchman. When we were there he was in his 70’s and not in the best of health. But health is in the mind more than the body, and there was nothing wrong with Cosme’s mind.

He would go on for hours about UFOs which he had seen over the years. He firmly believed in these flying visions and knew they were real. Not many people on earth have spent so much time staring at the night sky, so we figured he knew more than us on the subject. He was simply delighted to tell us these stories because everyone else in his life all through the years had kind of looked past the man. Nobody paid any attention to him. He was there, working, but people left him alone unless they needed something.

Cosme was about as poor as you can imagine. I think he only had the clothes on his back and lived in a one room shack with a dirt floor the next block over. One day I saw him in front of his “house” in the morning sweeping the dirt before he retired for the day. He would eat scraps of food left by people from various restaurants and some other simple things he could get for free.

Once our belongings were packed and shipped off to Rochester for our long awaited return trip, we had little left to do at Suites Slila but hand in the keys at the Manager’s Office and put our travel bags in the Taxi for the airport. It was about 10 am, and people were going about their normal day. Just before stepping into the taxi I heard a familiar voice Un – momentito. It was Cosme shuffling up the path with a plastic bag in his hand. I hardly recognized him in the light of day. He shook my hand and looked deeply into my eyes: his had a tear. He said in broken, but understandable English, “Thank you my friend” and handed me the bag with a slight bow. In the bag were two bottles of Tequila, and it was a very good, expensive brand. That must have cost him over two month’s pay. I still have part of the second bottle left after 33 years, and of course I will never finish it because my memory of Cosme can never end.

The point is that we touch the lives of people every day, and we have little idea the impact we are having on people. Don’t look past the people who serve you – they are individuals with high value, and each one has a story to tell.

You cannot fully know the impact you will have on other people!