It would be hard for anyone to claim that things are business as usual right now. Changes in remote work, health and safety, security, workforce management and supply chain, all driven by COVID-19 concerns, have radically rewritten the rules for the way work happens — and how it’s managed.
Our resilience and imagination as leaders are being tested. The importance and validity of corporate values and culture are also under challenge.
I know that this may not feel like the obvious time to talk about ideas not directly about getting work out the door … and in some cases keeping the door open. But times that test our organizational culture and values show us how genuine those fundamentals are and how much of a resource they can be.
My experience with client companies is a very concise if not large statistical sample. If a company’s stated values were not clear, compelling and used regularly to test policy and decision-making, then challenging times would show them for what they were: an internal PR exercise.
Values that sound good but have no teeth create cynicism inside the company, and often derision in public. Want a great example? Go search for the corporate values at Enron. Be sure to drill down into the “vision” statement that supports them, which includes, “We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don’t belong here.”
So how do you know if the values you worked so hard to identify are an asset? Here are a few test questions to help you start that conversation:
► Do we validate that key hires, especially managers and leaders, share and exhibit our values?
► Do we discipline or terminate employees at any level for clear violations or obvious disregard for our values?
► How often are our values used in meetings to either guide or test hard-fought decisions?
► When the realities of COVID-19 began to set in, did we double down on our values in decisions about adoption of new safety processes, work-from-home management, absentee policies, order fulfillment and even decisions involving accounts payable and accounts receivable?
Between my Vistage members, EOS clients and direct coaching, I get a regular look into more than 100 organizations each month. I cannot argue that my observations are unbiased. And, of course, the kinds of leaders who would join a peer group or adopt a challenging but clear operating system are, by definition, purposeful in the way they lead. I cannot consider them an unbiased sample.
However, what I have observed since March, when COVID-19 came to Arkansas, is that these companies have looked to their values and cultural norms to reset policy and guide decisions and as a compass to navigate a new reality of doing business. And each of them would tell you these values have served them well in the last seven months.
A well-defined culture and clearly articulated set of values do not replace solid contingency planning, skillful supply chain management, solid financial governance, regulatory and compliance capability or any other business practice. But if my small sample is indicative of the larger market, companies focused purely on business process and rigor (or worse yet, those that have thrown their culture and values out the window) are now operating at a disadvantage.
For decades, no one talked about culture in business. “Show up on time and do your work, and we will pay you on time” was the contract between employees and their organizations. As technology and demographics changed, the competition for people even in front-line manufacturing changed the rules.
Our early attempts at creating culture were largely misinformed and company-centric. You only have to read “Dilbert” in the early years (first published in 1989 and still a daily dose of business cynicism) to see an arched eyebrow barometer of corporate culture and values. Only when they began to understand the changes in workforce demographics did leaders begin to embrace the power of a strong and purposeful culture and clear values.
While there is no crystal ball, the clear demographics of our inbound generation of employees only underscore the competitive danger of ignoring culture and values as part of governance. For boomers, it was a cool thing to do late in life. For the generations since, the ones that make up our workforce today, the culture and values of an organization they work for are critical.