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Keeper of the Values


One afternoon, my two young children were out in the front yard, playing a game of pickup soccer with a couple of neighbourhood kids.

Within a few minutes, it became clear that the game wasn’t going well. From inside the garage, I could hear them arguing about the rules and debating the score. This group of kids was not playing from the same rulebook. It wasn’t long before the others took their literal ball and went home.

This sort of scenario doesn’t just occur on the playground. As adults, we have these moments, too, although they might play out a bit more subtly (although not always). And if they are happening in your organization, it’s probably a sign that your company values aren’t clear or that there’s a misalignment between the stated values and what’s actually happening at work.

Why Values Matter

Values are a set of guiding principles that tell people how to behave. Your organization’s values are critical to unleashing the passion and capabilities of your people because they provide clear, consistent signposts not just for what is acceptable but what the organization aspires to achieve.

As a leader, one of your most important roles is to be a steward of these values. Setting the right example is paramount: when the team looks up at you, what do they see? What do you tolerate and embody? How do you behave, especially in times of stress? How are you living them?

Cultivating Culture

Lived values are the DNA of your company’s culture. They set the foundation for so much of what enables outstanding leadership, including the ability to:

  • Attract, retain and grow top talent.

  • Enable the freedom to make decisions, take actions and fully engage everyone to contribute their best.

  • Create an environment where people feel they belong, are valued for their differences and can be their true selves.

  • Openly communicate, to be able to share our perspectives and truths and have others be shaped and influenced by it.

Think of culture as your values in action. Now, it’s important to note that values tend to be ideals while life and business are often anything but. But that gap between the ideal and the real is normal. Your role is to make it as small as possible.

The Value of Values

I know for some leaders, “culture” and “values” might sound soft or fuzzy, something you have to articulate every few years in a strategic planning session, along with your mission and vision, and then promptly move on.

This is a mistake. Values are directly linked to results—values equal performance.

Well-articulated and consistently interpreted and followed values are the difference between great and merely OK, or even disastrous, performance.

That’s because clear, consistent values breed engagement, a psychological and emotional commitment to the organization and its goals. To engage team members your organization must have a cause worthy of devotion. People want to contribute to something bigger than themselves.

Put another way: if your strategy is what you want to accomplish, think of your values as how you’ll get there. The what and the how are a potent combination that creates a virtuous cycle. That’s because people who feel like their contribution counts perform better. The organization performs better. And then people feel that their contribution counts. The cycle then repeats itself.

When leaders fail to embody and protect their company’s values, the results can range from disappointing to downright disastrous.

The Big Lie

When values and leadership behaviour are out of step, it doesn’t just damage morale: it jeopardizes performance. It’s the company that says it values respect but allows the hot-headed manager to yell at junior staffers with impunity. It’s the business that claims to value work-life harmony, but team members are constantly getting emails and requests after-hours. It’s the organization that states it values diversity but has a predominantly white, primarily male leadership team.

This misalignment is fertile ground for all sorts of harmful elements that can sour your culture. It creates distrust. It sows the seeds of apathy: why bother trying to do my best or do the right thing if bad behaviour is tolerated or even rewarded? It can create a sense of fear, where team members are paralyzed by indecision or afraid of making a misstep because it’s not clear what the right choice might be.

This profound disconnection is success kryptonite. Connection is at the heart of values.

Strategy + Values

Truly engaging people is a high bar. In most organizations, only 15-20 percent of employees report they are fully engaged. Yet, great leaders find a way to connect with people and engage them in the work and close the gap.

You can have all the management tools in the world, but without being able to connect with and motivate people to act on strong, shared values, you’ll never lead them to contribute their best every day.

I’d love to hear your stories how the values and culture in your organization enable success, or get in the way. Share yours in the comments. And email me directly if you think this approach might be a fit.

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