Always Go Back to Your Foundation

May 3, 2014

FoundationMost of us have values that we try to live by. We acquired our values very early in life, often before we can remember.

Usually values are passed on by parents, but there are other sources such as the church, school, or a close relative. Values usually remain with us throughout our lives, changing very little, if at all. Our experiences in life will color how we view the values, but they normally do not change.

In 2010, I heard an inspirational speech by the great Wintley Phipps. If you don’t recognize the name, you would recognize his golden baritone voice singing religious songs like “Amazing Grace.” Wintley gave the keynote address at the National Speakers Association Convention in Orlando Florida.

The title of his speech was “The HPLP Gene.” The whole hour was devoted to convincing us that we each have a Gene called “Helping People Live their Potential.”

He recounted numerous stories from his life where his “heroes” taught him great lessons and how those things became his foundation as he caught the HPLP Gene.

If you are interested in listening to this excellent speech, it is available for free on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8bW5s2-nZ8

His main point is that those people who pay it forward are living the life that God intended for us, and that behavior will provide us huge rewards in life. Even if nobody remembers us, “History will record that there lived a man, there lived a woman who had the Gene: The Helping People Live Their Potential Gene.”

One vivid story I recall was about a skyscraper in New York City. At one point the building developed a serious crack on the 42nd floor. They called for the Structural Engineer to come in and figure out what was causing this problem before serious damage was done.

When the building owner came in and went to the 42nd floor, he could not find the engineer. They told the owner, “Oh no – he is not here; he is down in the 6th basement.”

When the owner got to the 6th basement, he asked the engineer what he was doing down there because the problem was on the 42nd floor. The engineer told him, “The crack may be on the 42nd floor, but your problem is down here in the 6th basement.”

Apparently, one of the guards for the building wanted to build a garage but did not have the money for materials. So, every day before going home, he would go down to the 6th basement and chisel a brick out of the foundation to take home in his bag. After he had done this for several years, a crack appeared on the 42nd floor.

Wintley told the audience that when things are not working right in our lives, we should not be looking for the cause on the 42nd floor. “Go back to your foundation! Go back to the HPLP Gene and make sure you are helping people live their potential.”

Whether individuals or organizations, we need to heed the advice of Wintley Phipps. When things seem wrong in our lives, we need to go back to our foundation, back to our values, and make sure we are living up to the lessons we learned early in life.

Personally, I think the world would be a much better place if every individual actually wrote out his or her values and every organization did the same thing. Much more powerful than writing them, however, is to be absolutely fanatical about living those values every single day.


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.


Maybe it’s Time for a New Foundation

March 16, 2013

FoundationWould you build a 30-room mansion on a foundation made for a small Colonial? Sometimes as organizations grow, they may no longer fit on the foundation that was perfect when they were a start up. An organization outgrowing its foundation is a frequent problem, and great leaders instinctively adjust the foundation for the size of the current business, ensuring a stable condition.

In my analogy, the foundation is the strategic plan for the organization. Every business needs an operating framework that includes the following things at a minimum: Values, Vision, Mission, Behaviors, SWOT, Goals, Strategies, Tactics, and Measures. Without these guiding premises for the business, it would be as useless and grotesque as a luxury cruise ship with no power or operational engine.

When organizations start out, they are often small groups of people who operate like a family. The procedures can be informal and communication is just raising one’s voice to be heard in the next cubicle. Customer focus is pretty easy, because everyone in the office can hear the phone conversation the service person is having with a customer in need. In this small business mentality, the foundation items mentioned above are easy to describe, but that does not mean they should be ignored. Some level of documentation of things like values and vision will help the young organization to survive the treacherous infant years and grow into adolescence.

In the subsequent paragraphs, I will use sales revenue as a surrogate for the size of an organization. That variable is one typical measure that is often used. Realize that there are many other factors that can require a change to an organization’s foundation. For example, a not for profit group may take on a new major activity. Another example is a volunteer organization deciding to change their model for meetings. Any fundamental change in conditions can create the need to re-examine the foundation documents.

When an organization reaches roughly $50M annual revenue, the old foundation no longer fits, because there is usually a new physical space, and communication has become much more complex as the size and staff of the entity grows. It is time to revisit and revise the strategic framework for the journey toward a larger organization. Trying to hang on to the operating rules that applied on starting up will be a formula that severely limits future growth.

Another significant shift occurs somewhere between $100M and $200M annual revenue. By that time, the organization is a fully operating business entity with all the advantages of size, but with all the complexities and bureaucratic pitfalls that beset a large organization. Once again, it is imperative when organizations go through this metamorphosis that the foundation be resized to work correctly. The operating realities of a large organization are vastly different from a mid-sized company, and the strategic framework must reflect these realities or the organization will suffer.

It is a best practice to review and modify an organization’s strategy about once a year to verify it is still configured correctly for the current business situation. Normally these reviews can be done quickly with emphasis only on what has changed since the last review. As the organization reaches certain milestones of size, however, it is time to take a deeper look and make a zero-based activity of the strategic review. This will allow the strategic plan foundation to match the current business reality.