Getting clear on leading with values
There is something about the winter holiday season that makes tragedies seem more tragic. The tragedy makes “good news” stories seem more uplifting. It is when leading with values comes to the fore. It’s also a time when we reflect on the past and project into the future. Ideally learning in the process.
I recently had a flashback to a Christmas/New Year story from the mid-late 90’s. This story evoked a widespread emotional response in the US. The hero of the story, Aaron Feuerstein, owned a Polartec factory. The factory had provided most of the jobs in a town outside of Boston for about 100 years.
Unexpected action in the face of disaster
A couple of weeks before Christmas, a terrible fire destroyed much of the recently refurbished plant. The fire left a few thousand people without work. The owner made national news by doing something totally unexpected in the face of this disaster: he promised to continue paying his employees’ wages and benefits indefinitely.
Hundreds of individuals, some of corporate America, and even the US government stepped forward to help. Good PR for them? A twinge of conscience in the holiday season? Perhaps, but if we can silence the sceptics for a moment, maybe they were truly inspired by a leader who was simply doing “the right thing” and leading with values.
The journey to recovery was full of challenges for the 70+-year-old Feuerstein. Challenges which included millions in accrued debts and bankruptcy. He became quite ill at one point and eventually gave up the reins as head of the company. Feuerstein admitted that he knew all along his plan could very well end in ruin for him. But his values were so deeply entrenched, he could not let logic or self-preservation prevail over his need to help his employees. He had to do the right thing.
His employees were not as surprised by his sacrifice. They had deep respect for him as he roamed the factory, greeting them by name, listening to them, showing interest in their personal lives. He had also shown concern for the community and environment long before it was fashionable to do so. Thus, during the worst crisis in the history of his business, he pledged to rebuild a state-of-the-art facility and restore all the jobs. When the factory eventually reopened, an even more productive workforce turned out.
But it needn’t take a crisis and/or grand gesture to motivate a leader to do the right thing. Fast forward to 2014. and an authentic leader who is amongst the thousands working passionately outside of the spotlight. I met Jenny Cormack-Lendon in London when she was a delegate on one of my courses and was immediately impressed by her strong desire to be an exemplary leader to her team by leading with values.
Values based leadership
At first glance, she doesn’t have much in common with Aaron Feuerstein: She is a busy mother and wife at a much earlier stage in her career. She does not operate from the height of owner/CEO but rather is a supply chain leader to about 320 people in 17 countries across Europe. But like Aaron, she epitomises her company’s long, unwavering tradition of stressing values.
Since 1865, Cargill–a global food processing company–has held the belief that doing the right thing is the foundation for success and every employee must take responsibility for maintaining the high ethical standards, clearly outlined in the Guiding Principles and Code of Conduct. Though the values are not unique, what did strike me was this clause: “If you are ever uncertain of the right course, talk to your manager or a colleague or contact the Ethics Open Line. Our culture is built on good decisions made through discussion with others, so you should never feel alone when facing an ethical dilemma.”
Diversity and Inclusion
In addition to modelling Cargill’s stated principles, Jenny finds ways to prove her commitment to inclusion, diversity, and recognition. She supplies the human touch on a daily basis, based on her belief that “The culture of an organisation comes from its leaders… the tone I have set is one of open and honest communication where everyone… understands the goals of the business and is empowered to perform at the best of their ability … by trusting my team to always do their best, my team have gone above and beyond what is necessary of them on a day-to-day basis because they really believe in…how valuable their own contribution is to the overall success of the business.”
Jenny recognised early on that a one-size-fits-all approach wouldn’t work, particularly with the range of national cultures in her team. She took the time to spend one-on-one time with them at their own sites, sharing herself at a personal level, building the trust/respect that would help alleviate any cultural clashes. For example, the team members from Ukraine and Russia have managed to avoid any issues that might have arisen from the current strain between the two nations.
Last January, when I delivered a course at the annual conference Jenny organises for her direct reports, I learned firsthand why they value her. They emphasised her consistent, personalised communication with them, her excellent listening skills and her responsiveness to their needs. They appreciate her regular e-mails on recognition and her annual Oscar-style ceremony where individuals/teams win awards.
These two leaders made me realise that we can simplify our complex lives by letting these four short words guide us: Do the right thing. But the first step is to be clear on the values that will define “right” for you in your role. So give yourselves the gift of some self-reflection this year and begin by leading with values.
- Define your top values and decide how much you would sacrifice to uphold them. Do you compromise your values when under stress?
- Think about whether they are in sync with your company’s chief values, so you can model them without strain.
- Do your values allow you to focus on people more than processes? On how you achieve results rather than on just achieving your targets?