"People Fifth"? The Importance of Authentic Values.



I met with a General Manager of Human Resources a number of years ago shortly before the public listing of their business. He was particularly excited about a new set of values that had been developed by the executive team and were about to be rolled out to employees in the coming weeks. He was then kind enough to give me a preview of the five new values, all nicely laminated on cards and numbered, which went something like this:
  • Number 1. Deliver for Shareholders - as a business about to be publicly listed, the executive team were keen to focus people around the importance of delivering on the promises made to those about to invest in the business.
  • Number 2. Delight Customers - this seemed pretty sensible, and was focused around providing a great experience for customers every time and responding to customer feedback.
  • Number 3. Operational Efficiency - streamlining processes to improve efficiency and provide greater consistency across their various locations.
  • Number 4. I honestly don't remember what the fourth value was, which is probably because of the fifth value.
  • Number 5 - People First. 

At that point of the conversation I had the same reaction you're probably having now. Before I could fully think it through, I found myself saying "Do you think you should change that last one to 'people fifth'?". At that point he understood the irony of their fifth value.

In this instance the executive team had actually constructed what they saw as the most important values for the business in order of importance, and for them the reality was that people came fifth. However, being accustomed as we all are to saying "people are our most important asset", the "people first" tag line seemed like the right name at the time. You may not be surprised to learn that following the public listing of the business, they closed their doors for the last time within a few years. Perhaps putting "people fifth" was part of the problem. 

I've seen some great examples of business values. When done well, a set of values can provide an invaluable framework for employees throughout the organisation to make decisions in the 'grey space' between black and white rules and procedures. One senior leadership team I was a member of would often refer back to the organisation's values when making tough decisions while navigating the global financial crisis. In the absence of precedents and guidelines, the values allowed us to choose between options based on their alignment with the values of the organisation. The values also helped us to explain these decisions to those affected in the context of the organisation's strategy. Furthermore, it provided a consistent framework for doing business across diverse cultures.

However values can sometimes be poorly developed and inauthentic. 'People fifth' is one example. In some organisations values are developed from the ground up - a sort of democratic discernment of what's important through seemingly endless focus groups, interviews and surveys. In my experience this approach almost always produces a bland set of values that are more about avoiding offending anyone than they are about guiding decision making. In my view, values need to be developed at 'the top' and then refined through conversation across the business. In our earlier example, some refinement of the proposed values with employees would have highlighted the 'people fifth' dilemma, and possibly enabled a better end result. However too often executive teams are presented a set of values emerging from an overly consultative process and, as a result, they don't match the strategy of the organisation. The executive team haven't bought into the values before they are printed on a fancy sign that starts off behind the reception desk, and is gradually relegated into a store room to gather dust. 

An organisation's values need to be authentic and matched with the strategic direction of the business. As a leader you need to hold yourself and others accountable to these values. If you're going to do this, you will want to make sure you're 100% comfortable with the values. I know of one organisation that had its values printed onto the building security pass lanyards people wore around their necks. When the senior leaders of the organisation made a number of decisions that didn't seem to align with these values, many employees staged a quiet protest by removing their official lanyards and replacing them with plain ones that didn't include the stated values. In that case, the inauthentic values probably did more harm than good, speaking of a promise that wasn't fulfilled by leaders. 

In summary, authentic values can be a valuable tool to aide decision making in uncertain times. They can be used to hold leaders and employees to account, not just around what results they achieve, but also how they achieve results. A process that starts with the senior team considering the values they believe are required to achieve their strategy is a great start, and needs to be coupled with a refinement or 'testing' process that involves groups of employees. Clearly defined values can provide that all important compass that people need when navigating uncharted waters.