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Why Have Corporate Values If They Don't Really Matter

19/02/2016 1:39 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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The primary purpose of having corporate values is to influence the attitudes and behaviours prevalent across a business. When applied well, values can be a powerful tool, enabling clarity about the approach that is both expected and accepted. All too often, however, despite the considerable time and effort leaders and teams invest defining values, they fail to have any real impact on the way people choose to behave at work. Often, at the heart of the reason why is a failure of the leadership team to walk the talk and turn words into action.

Put simply 'walk the talk' means do what you say you will and be prepared to do what you expect others to do. For values to have any meaningful impact they need to truly matter and consistently apply. The extent to which there is alignment between words and actions is the key. It's not enough to talk about values -- they need to be reflected in all aspects of the way the organisation operates. Unless values are demonstrated in the way priorities are set and decisions are made they will have little to no positive impact.

Six critical priorities underpin any organisation's ability to leverage the power of corporate values and purposefully create both a positive and successful culture. Beyond the first priority of ownership, each priority is as important as the next.

Priority 1: Take ownership

Disconnect between what is espoused and what happens in practice is often a reflection of a lack of real and visible ownership from the top. Often I meet CEOs or business-owners who fail to recognise, let alone accept, their ultimate responsibility for driving the culture of their business. One CEO I worked with told me he wanted me to meet with each of his executives and tell them how they are expected to behave. What he failed to recognise was the importance of his role in providing clarity, coaching his leaders and holding them accountable for their behaviour.

Another CEO complained his HR Director was incompetent because she hadn't 'fixed' the culture, despite him telling her to. In both of these cases, and in many others I observe, corporate values were documented but are barely recognisable in the organisations culture. Most importantly, they are barely recognisable in the way the person in the top job behaves. All too often, senior leaders fail to have a positive influence on their organisations culture because they fail to take ownership for it.

Priority 2: Develop people managers

Accountability for creating an organisation's culture rests on the shoulders of far more than just the CEO or senior leadership team. Every leader at every level of your organisation's hierarchy is responsible for the workplace environment that is created. 'Walking the talk' requires that every leader understand their role and take responsibility for delivering. Leaders of leaders have the greatest responsibility. thanks to the influence they have on the approach other people managers take and the impact they, in turn, have.

Start by ensuring every manager of people has a well-developed understanding of your corporate values and what each one looks like in action. Help them to recognise the types of behaviours that are aligned and those that are contrary to what you want and expect. Ensure leaders place priority on behaviour and have the capability to deal with issues that arise. Provide coaching and support needed to help set clear expectations, appraise behaviour and provide constructive feedback. Expect and support managers to have the tough conversations about behaviour that so many avoid.

Never promote someone to a leadership role unless they operate in ways consistent with the culture you want to create or maintain. This applies as much to the decisions that are made about who to appoint to Board Director roles as it does to a first-level supervisor. The decisions made about who is appointed send clear messages about what is ultimately considered successful behaviour. The approach a new leader takes before and following their appointment points to the values and behaviours that really matter.

Priority 3: Make behaviour matter

Setting expectations people know you won't follow through on adds little value. If your staff don't believe it matters to you, they won't believe it matters to them. Unless there are consequences -- reward and recognition when things go well, remedial action when they don't -- it is unlikely your team will take your corporate values seriously.

Have the courage to make the tough decisions that are at times necessary to protect the culture of your business. A common challenge organisations face is dealing with the poor behaviours of team members who, in all other ways, are meeting their performance objectives. The classic example being the sales professional who is meeting, if not exceeding, their revenue targets but behaving in ways that undermine the spirit and success of other people around them.

Many of the leaders I work with find this a particularly challenging scenario to manage. Fearful of impacting financial performance by addressing the behaviour concerned, many turn a blind eye and fail to address the problem for extended periods of time. However, each time they ignore or look past the inappropriate conduct it sends a clear signal to the rest of the team about what is really expected and accepted.

Little to nothing is gained from articulating core values unless people are held accountable for behaving in line with them, regardless of who they are and the role they play. Talking about values without applying them undermines trust and causes many people to disengage. Perceived as broken promises, unfulfilled values are a constant reminder to people that the organisation promised to be better than it is today.

Priority 4: Reward well

Not only does it matter that you take remedial action to address unacceptable conduct, it is equally essential that corporate values be consistently applied when rewarding and recognising people. Reflect on when you have observed people being rewarded despite frequently behaving badly. What impact did it have on the organisations or teams culture? How did these decisions make other team members feel and what impact did that have on the strength of the team's spirit?

Every decision leaders make about who and what to reward and recognise matters. For example, decisions relating to remuneration and benefits, promotions, awards and development opportunities each reinforce and encourage behaviours. These decisions reveal what the organisation truly values. Observe and recognise people on your team who consistently demonstrate your corporate values. Reward only those who bring behaviours you want to reinforce and encourage from others.

Priority 5: Hire well

Every member of your team brings to work every day his or her personal values and beliefs. The ways in which they choose to behave are the observable and measurable manifestations of these values and beliefs. The decisions you make about the values you hire into your business matter as much to your success in building a great workplace culture as the steps you take to reward, recognise or redress unacceptable conduct.

Assessing each candidate's alignment with your core values must be a key focus of any recruitment process. However attractive the knowledge, skills and experience of a candidate may be, their ability to bring an approach aligned with your corporate values must be given priority. Make it non-negotiable that every leader give first consideration to the likelihood each candidate will behave in line with the organisations values. Ensure the recruitment process adopted supports leaders to explore how candidates have approached tasks or circumstances in the past to gain insight to how they are likely to behave in the future.

Priority 6: Be consistent

Consistency relates not only to how you treat one person over the next, but also how you respond to the behaviours of an individual or group over time. Being selective about when values matter and when they don't is one sure way to undermine the strength of your culture management efforts. For example, I have observed organisations apply loose standards when things are going well, only to 'clamp down' on behaviours when times get a little tougher.

HR plays an essential role in delivering on each of the priorities we have explored, including ensuring consistency across the organisation. HR strategies, programs, policies, systems and processes all have the power to influence a consistent approach to people, leadership and management. The approach taken to the development and consistent application of each reveals the extent to which the organisation is truly committed to walking its talk and applying its corporate values.

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Karen Gately is a leadership and people-management specialist and a founder of Ryan Gately. For more information visit www.karengately.com.au

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