I own a for-profit, B Corp-accredited strategic design and innovation consultancy. We are values-led and work with clients through the lens of ‘meaningful work’. It all sounds very fluffy doesn’t it?
I’m often asked by leaders of organizations how values create value. What values and purpose have to do with the bottom line and how they might build culture. I’m at times confronted by leaders who don’t see the link between values, culture, purpose and strategy. As Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock has said, “the inextricable link between purpose and profit.”
Many years ago, in a collaborative session with the leadership group of a 2,000-person organization I was asked by the CEO (who arrived late, huffing and puffing, half-way through the session) why his organization needed values at all. The conversation before he walked in was wonderful. Purposeful. Staff that were previously disengaged were now paying attention because, for the first time they were asked how they wanted to feel when they arrived at work each day.
For the first time they were asked what they believed in and what their purpose was in the context of their vocation. When their CEO walked in — imagine Darth Vader boarding the rebel ship — a cold chill filled the room. I had observed the CEO for a few weeks and noticed that the team that surrounded him was fearful of everything he would say. His team would agree with everything and not challenge the status quo, or bring anything new to the table. There was a chokehold on innovation and the culture in the organization was at an all-time low. Customer churn was high and profits weren’t part of the conversation.
The CEO it seemed, from my observation was hyper-focused on what he thought the organization should not be doing, instead of what it ought to be doing. As he took his seat at the centre of the long board-room table, the room of 25 people fell silent.
“Why does my organization need values?”
The question broke the silence and worked its way towards me like a rocket. I aimed to answer before it hit me between the eyes and I was abruptly cut off…
What are your values Jim?
Do they create a healthy business for you?
The questions kept coming, thick and fast and the room of 25 adults slowly worked its way back to the nook of their seats in silence. All eyes were on me. I interjected and acknowledged the importance of the questions and began my own monologue. I admit, as an extroverted introvert I quite like a monologue, and an audience.
Values define decision-making, I began. They help shape what you focus on as a leader and how you and your team function. They’ll guide very decision you make and ensure you’re on track to realize your purpose and, as a leader, realize your highest potential. (The room was still silent but I noticed the COO sit up on his chair and a smile emerge on his face).
They help resolve conflict and in the face of adversity, I continued. They’ll help you deal with some the more human issues you face as an organization day-to-day. They’ll steer your conversation with a tearful customer as much as they steer you to decide what you applaud, and what you choose to ignore. They’ll bring a level of autonomy, and inspiration, to your team and you’ll find that they’ll more empowered to do their jobs without having to check in on you every single day, about every single
thing. Freeing you up to focus on your time on the things that you bring the highest value to.
Purpose, and values will ensure your 2,000 staff, when asked what they do for a living, will tell a story instead of listing a job title and a salary. This in turn builds a narrative more powerful than any other. Think IBM “Innovation that matters”, KPMG’s “We shape history”, or Google’s “Focus on the customer and all else will follow.”
Even ice-cream can have values — Ben and Jerry’s “We strive to minimize our negative impact on the environment” tells a story beyond “I serve ice-cream” for a living. Values and purpose provide the answer to the question, “What do you do?” And in turn, if that answer is profoundly inspiring, it means that people and customers are present, focussed, driven and in fact more loyal.
The CEO was now silent. Nothing more to say.
The rest of the room was now focussed, smiling and attentive. A dialogue ensued, slowly but surely. A dialogue about the importance of a positive culture where people felt safe to come to work every day. Where people felt motivated to strive towards a North Star and held the tools and resources to deal with the inevitable decisions, conversations and impacts the organization will make moving forward.
If BlackRock’s Larry Fink thinks that “purpose is not the sole pursuits of profits, but the animating force for achieving them” — we can all embrace that simple notion that they will help us towards something valuable.