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C.E.O. or not, you always need to feel the pulse…Part One

Over the past 25 years, I’ve had the opportunity to counsel, advise and interact with more than 60 Fortune 500 CEOs.  Always those meetings were in the context of how I could help them navigate a transition, a crisis, a brand challenge.  At the same time, those interactions were enormously valuable to me because they helped me understand their ability to understand what they are and what they aren’t doing well…and how those factors contributed to the ‘condition’ that provided the catalyst for the invitation to their office in the first place.

With each introductory meeting I always come with three or four questions to serve as the genesis of our conversation.

For example, I always ask: How did we get to this situation?

The CEO of a one of the world’s largest banks answered, “Some folks made a bad series of decisions.”  My reply was, “what guided those decisions?”  His reply was, “with these results, damned if I know.”

Herein lays the problem.  What kind of decision culture drives decisions?  Every day, we each make decisions…literally hundreds.  Business decisions, personal decisions, big decisions, seemingly insignificant decisions.  What’s missing?

Simple, criteria.

How many times a day do you or a colleague or boss talk about ‘our culture?’  What is a culture?  Recently we completed a simple piece of forensics where we asked 1,000 executives, ‘what is a culture?”  Just guess, how many different answers did we get?  One?  Ten? Hundred?  Surprised?  731!

Here are some of the answers.  A culture is:

What shapes us and defines us”…“our differences”… “The manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively” (whoa!)…”code of behavior”…”the way your business operates”…”how we interact with each other”…”it’s what motivates us”.

If your leadership team can’t consistently describe what your culture is, how can they live it?

I’ve been using a definition for the past 20 years that seems to both work, and make sense.

“A culture is the environment in which you/your organization make decisions”

Any organization’s success is only a factor of the decisions they make.  So, what are the criteria for those decisions?  One answer – ‘values’.  That’s why organizations have values.  Values should be the criteria that guide every decision, made by everyone, everyday.

Almost every organization has values.  Unfortunately, very few take the three steps necessary to ensure that the values are behavioral vs. words on a website, poster or back of a business card.

1. Values creation coming from the bottom-up has pride of authorship.

What is the number one motivational, productivity-enhancing, employee engagement strategy?  Listening.  Listen to the voice of your employee team.  Rather than telling them what are the organization’s values, ask them to define the five behavior-driven values that they feel should define the organization.  I’ve use a collaboration software tool called WIQ to gather the input of organizations ranging in size from 40 to 40,000 on an accelerated, real-time basis.

This five step process not only produces “everyone-in” results, it becomes an education tool also.

  • Create the context.  Explain the ‘why’ values are important to you.
  • Create the content.  Ask what five values should a) define the behaviors of the employee team and b) become the criteria for making decisions.
  • Let every employee contribute their ‘ideas’ using an on-line platform.
  • Executive team synthesizes employee input into five values (no one can remember more and if they can’t remember them, they can’t ‘live’ them).
  • Ensure the ‘announcement’ and adoption of the ‘values’ is a company-wide education and celebration.

2. Leadership needs to become bi-lingual…add the ‘language of values’ to your fluency.

Values need to be ‘lived’ by leadership for the balance of the organization to believe leadership is serious.  In tandem,  leaderships’ ability to become bi-lingual and fluent in ‘our values’ will be the ultimate tiebreaker as to whether organization’s redefine their decision culture in a manner that aligns with their values…or not.

3. Conduct cross-organizational monthly ‘discovery’ dialogues.

Select 50 employees representing the cross-section of the organization both horizontally and vertically and divide them into five teams of ten.  Have them meet once a month for lunch where they discuss three questions relating to ‘living the values.’  Give them the ability of participate both anonymously (by answering the questions without attribution, which WIQ allows) and then let them discuss everyone’s experiences (answers) over lunch without any social or hierarchical pressures.

These discussions will become a lens on how well the organization is adapting to ‘living the values’ and making decisions based on the values.