It occurs to me that the best corporate cultures resemble families. Yes, even slightly dysfunctional … since that’s my fond perspective. In the “old days” for clarity scribes would look for a definitive description in their Merriam Webster’s New World dictionary. I still have mine which was a gift from my girlfriend’s parents upon my high school graduation. It was inscribed with the notation “congratulations and may you have the best of everything during the next four years” –a salutation to the onset of my college years. So with that seldom used book, due to spell check and Google, I flipped to the word family. From the choice of definitions I chose this: “a group of things having a common source or similar features”. So, for our purpose here, let’s extrapolate that to mean for corporations – a common purpose.
In our family growing up there was no formal issue or posting of our family purpose, or values, though we knew what they were by observing and listening to our parents. I’ll call mom and dad out as CEO and COO … both chief executives, in effect.
What gave our family an identity were guidelines, ancestral traditions, ethical standards and camaraderie. All of these contributed to our family’s “common source”… in other words, our culture. Wishing I could recall the source, one of my favorite culture characterizations is “how things are done around here.”
In our family I can readily specify four family values: education or learning, personal integrity and responsibility, faith and belief in God and traditions that honored our forebears. So, without those posted on our hallways or attached to our refrigerator door, how did we three boys “know” those values?
The answer? Stories and observances.
Executive leaders, like parents, have a responsibility to express their own beliefs and model (walk the walk) what they stand for. In my own research I have found that the values of high purpose organizations followed a pattern similar to family values. The most common categories of corporate values are:
- Service to customer
- Employee respect and growth opportunities
- Commitment to a cause in the community/world
It is important to understand that expressed values call our attention to a reason to work beyond a job description and pay grade. The family parallel is that room and board (shelter, food and clothing) does not define a family’s culture. Amen? Extra credit is due those leaders you know that above the base ( security ) of Maslow’s pyramid is the ascending innate desires in all of us for belonging, contribution and meaning. The primary executive function then, in my mind, is how the corporate values are intentionally expressed, validated and celebrated. Perhaps values in writing are like sheet music. We may be able to see the notes, but when expressed through voice and accompaniment I hear and see … or, better, experience it. I think most executives love their sheet music … they did dedicate significant thought to the creation of words that define “how we do things around here”. Following the penning of those “from the heart” expressions, the next step is to express that love to their family (er, employees). Here’s how it works. When people are attracted to your values by your validation of their observance and performance of them, now they have equity. You have valued their ownership. They belong and their work is meaningful and serves a purpose or cause. Families that stand strong weave together principles and love. Humans are naturally hierarchical. Simon Sinek (author: Start with Why) says that we want to be led. When there is a greater reward, for example, of service to others (to each other and to the customer ) it touches at intrinsic desire for significance.
That alone attracts, retains and inspires employees toward excellence. That’s how leaders transfer values to those valued.