Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

When Do Shared Values Become a Competitive Advantage?

Chapter 3: The Real American Idol Part 8

In the last post, I used the McKinsey 7S model to explain the importance of shared company values to corporate culture.  Tom Peters’ book “In Search of Excellence” introduced the 7S model to the broader business community when it was first published in 1982.  Peters argues (as do many others) that strong company values give a competitive business advantage.  The top companies “create broad, uplifting, shared culture,” which allows them to  “ extract extraordinary contributions from very large numbers of people” because they share “ a sense of highly valued purpose.[i]”  In other words, when people really believe in what they are doing, they work harder.

This rings true for me.  People I interviewed felt that working in the Biotech industry is “motivating in itself” because of the direct connection to improving human health.  I was, however, surprised to learn that people in the computer industry find “solving customer problems” to be an analogous type of motivation.

When people described their best work experiences, often they pointed to a time when everyone in the company was aligned around a clear set of goals.  Notice the emotion-laden words as a research VP describes her best work experiences.

There were stages in my job where I loved my work.  I would get in early, I would stay late, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I thought I was making a contribution and it all felt right to me.  I thought about what made it good.   I was really clear in my scientific heart we had strengths to address what we were going after.  What I knew as my training as a scientist, and the company had resources that really felt like we were aligned with the goals of the company.

Shared values have an additional benefit on the practical level – they facilitate decision making.  According to Peters, the Excellent companies did not need detailed procedures because “people way down the line know what they are supposed to do in most situations because the handful of guiding values is crystal clear.” In contrast, Peters sites the difficulty of making decisions at a large company put together by a series of mergers.  “The top people are inundated with trivia because there are no cultural norms.”  Underperforming companies like this can also have a strong culture, but the focus tends to be on politics or “the numbers,” rather than on people or products.[ii] Peters argues that these companies do not have strong values.  I disagree – there are strong values, but the values are pointed in a different direction.

What differentiates the values of the companies classified as Excellent when compared to the lower performing companies?  The Excellent companies put people first.

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[i] In Search Of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies.  Thomas J Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. Harper and Row (1982) p. 51.

[ii] In Search Of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies.  Thomas J Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. Harper and Row (1982) p. 76.

Twitter NBC Olympics Flap Torches Boundaries Of Free Speech

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 4: 

At the end of the last post, I was discussing circumstances when a person has to speak in the name of the company.  This is not a problem, until that speech starts to conflict with your internal value system.  The whole issue of speech gets tricky pretty fast, because a company routinely expects an employee not to publically disclose things that would be damaging to the company.

I asked many people I interviewed if they were ever in a situation where they had to make a trade off between being straight with a customer and protecting the company.  Here is a typical answer, this one from “Matthew,” a 20-year software employee, and a Buddhist.  “I do that every day.  I deal with customer issues that are unresolvable, or 18 months in the future.  We are encouraged to be relatively straight with them and also to not bad mouth the company.  As a representative of the company, we have a certain obligation.  It’s of it is why you get the paycheck.  I have had 1 or 2 situations that had to do with directly lying to customer.  It came back and caused a huge headache.”

Matthew’s last point is worth elaboration.  Lying to customers is often a bad business strategy, but the criteria for what speech is permissible varies greatly between company cultures.  Which brings us to the Twitter Olympics flap.  Twitter first suspended and reinstated the account of Guy Adams, a news correspondent who shared the corporate email address of NBC executive Gary Zenkel.  (More details on the story available here.)  The key point for now is that, in Twitter’s own words, “there are some limitations on the type of content that can be published with Twitter.”  I love the name of this section on the website, “Content Boundaries and Use of Twitter.”  Boundaries is a wonderful word.  And what sets the boundaries of behavior?  In my opinion it is values.

What are the values of your company, and how do they impact speech by employees and executives?

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The Secret To Corporate Values Uncovered In Ancient Rome

Chapter 1 My Corporate Idolatry Part 4

I thought about the sacrifices I had made for the company, such as my fitness, my sleep, my time with family, and my focus.  In fact, the company gave out an award at the quarterly “all hands” employee meeting to the person who showed the most company spirit, which often came in the form of getting on a plane at a moments notice, or canceling a vacation.  Every quarter I was disappointed that I didn’t get it.

My corporation was my idol.  I knew it was true in the pit of my stomach, but the rational scientist in my head wanted more information.  A few days later I found a great article on the internet called “What is So Terrible About Idolatry” by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, editor of ‘Ask the Rabbi’ at Chabad.org. Rabbi Freeman described what is distinctive about idolatry in places like Babylon in the ancient world.  “If you don’t like what one god demands of you, you go find another god more to your taste. … After all, none of them is supreme, none is all-powerful.”  

This is just like the corporate world.  There are many different companies, each with its own culture and values.  And if you don’t like the values of your company, you can move to another.  For example, if you think your company is not honest enough with customers, you can find one that is more transparent.  But if you think transparency is bad for business, there is a company for you too.  There is no overriding set of values, beyond the need to be profitable.

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Ozzie Guillen, Free Speech, and Corporate Values

Baseball Cropped from Image:Baseball.jpg by Tage Olsin under Creative Commons License

Baseball Idol - see note for attribution info

Miami Marlins  manager Ozzie Guillen was suspended five games by the team for making the comment that he “loves Fidel Castro”  in a Time Magazine interview.  Guillen apologized in a tearful press conference, explaining that what he mean was that he admired the way Castro has stayed in power despite the fact that he is hated by much of Cuba’s population.

What amazes me is the number of people who feel that Guillen was exercising his Constitutional Right to Free Speech, and therefore the Marlins have no right to discipline him.

Excuse me?  There is no constitutional right to work for a particular employer, and there is no prohibition against a private employer suspending or firing an employee for something they say.

Working for a company is a tacit agreement to follow the company’s values, whatever they may be.  Ozzie Guillen works for a company whose customers hate Castro, and therefore praising Castro goes against Marlin’s values.  I am not going to weigh in on whether Guillen should have said what he did.  But the Marlins are a business, and they suspended him to show their customers that “The pain and suffering caused by Fidel Castro cannot be minimized.”  Part of adopting company values is accepting the rewards and punishments that come with that value system.

I am reminded of something a CEO told me about running a company.   “Your life is not your own. You are driven by being a lot of things  that are broader, about marketing the company to the financial community.”  Guillen in many ways like the CEO of the Marlins.  He is the public face of the organization.  He is paid millions of dollars by the team, and for that money he forfeits his right to speak in public in a way that the company doesn’t like.  What applies to Guillen applies to executives and employees throughout the corporate world.

In fact, I think I once lost a job because I called out someone powerful in a meeting.  To be honest, I didn’t really mind being let go, and I understood that I was putting my job on the line when I spoke up.  Whether this was right or wrong of the company is immaterial.  (And I should say that I have no direct evidence that this is why I was included in the next RIF.)  A company is most effective when everyone is on the same page, and it could be argued that someone who publicly dissents from the leadership should be let go because they are taking away from the common purpose.  I know there are a lot of Harvard Business Review articles saying that stifling dissent is a bad business strategy, and I agree.  Nevertheless, retaliation for speaking out is reality that employees  deal with every day.

Different companies have different tolerances for criticism of the company officers.   But few if any companies will tollerate an employee who speaks or acts in a way that is harmful to the company bottom line.  Ozzie Guillen’s suspension is a great example of the arbitrariness of company values.  Guillen made similar comments about admiring Castro two years ago when he was manager of the Chicago White Sox.  Admiring Castro does not conflict with White Sox values because few White Sox fans really care about Castro.  But publicly admiring Castro does conflict with Marlins values, because Marlins fans care a lot.

I suspect that if Ozzie Guillen paid more attention to people-first values,  he would have been more sensitive to the feelings of the Cuban-American community about Castro.  Plus, someone with strong people-first values would not admire a dictator for his ability to stay in power.  Some people around the world admire Castro for providing universal health care and a good education to his people.  But admire him for staying in power?  C’mon Man!