Leadership 101: Establish company values then act on them

Every company has values, the question is: Are the values listed the same as the values lived?

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“I don’t think there is anything too surprising in that list,” said a senior executive pointing to a slide highlighting his company’s new values while delivering a speech to a group of executives.

“I like your candour,” I thought to myself as the executive was open about his view on the company’s values. However, I don’t think anyone listening to this speech was surprised by his comments as it seems that frankness is part of his style.

However, it also struck me that if this executive knows his company’s values are just like every other company, then shouldn’t he question if they are right for his organisation? Or is the company the same as others?

This reminded me of a time I tested chief executives on their knowledge of their company’s values. I collected a list of values from each leader’s company and then removed the logo to mask the identity of each list. After sanitising the lists, I then redistributed them to the chief executives – only this time I gave each a list of values from a different company.

You would hope that the person at the top of a company would have an intimate knowledge of company values and would have immediately noticed that the list they received was not theirs. However, most thought the list in their hand was their own. Perhaps these leaders did not really know their values. More likely, the values at their company are not really surprising, being just like any other company.

For example, Dnata’s values are: Safety & Security, Service Excellence, Imagination, Performance Driven, Delighting Customers and Respect. They are probably very similar to yours; don’t all businesses have values related to customers, respect, safety, performance and service? Perhaps you title them slightly differently but they are still the same in nature and intent.

Reflecting on this made me question: If everyone’s values are so similar then, why is the practice of them so different?

Values should denote how important something is to a company. They should be guides for employees to take the best action in line with what has been described as significant. Each employee should adhere to them; they are a duty, an obligation. Values promote the organisational concept of right and good in employee behaviour.

Every company has values, the question is: Are the values listed the same as the values carried out? What we experience is a demonstration of the values in the workplace regardless of what is listed. The question you need to ask is whether these values are creating the workplace you desire. If not, there is a disconnect in what you are saying and doing.

If, for example, you say customers or safety is a value then don’t follow through, it is not a value. The mistake comes in hoping that listing values on a poster means people will abide by them. In reality employees live by what is of clear importance to the company, which is determined by what management gives attention to.

Having the privilege to work with different companies nearly every day, I see the posters and other “value” propaganda plastered on the walls. Identifying and advertising values is not a substitute for living them.

The reason several companies can have similar values on their websites and in employee manuals yet have different experiences with them is that few carry out their values. The important issue becomes how to incorporate them rather then pausing after identifying and posting them.

Values without action are just words.

Rectifying this does not require more posters; it is based upon leader behaviour. How you act and lead will determine how others act. Are you familiar with the idea of a “fear” culture? I’ve never seen a company list “fear” as a value, yet too many companies have a fear culture. This is because the leaders build it by the way they lead.

While I cannot speak for all of Dnata’s values, I experience two of them – delighting customers and service excellence – on a near-weekly basis passing through Dubai International Airport. I must admit, it looks like the leaders build it by the way they lead, at least compared to other airport experiences and based on the awards they win.

Let the “values” surprise come from living out what you put on paper. Since you are on display as a leader and your team copies what you do, then live your values as if you were a model displaying a product to consumers.

Tommy Weir is a leadership adviser and author of 10 Tips for Leading in the Middle East and other leadership writings. Follow him on Twitter: @tommyweir

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