Close
Written by
Peter Brookes-Smith

Peter Brookes-Smith

Are Values in Business our Fair Weather Friend?

When I was in Warsaw in 2015, I met a lady called Zofia Dzik and late last year, she asked me if I would speak at a conference she was organising. The subject is very close to my heart and so of course I agreed. This blog isn’t a transcript of my speech but it’s not far off. I hope you find it interesting!

The beginning

It’s the easiest thing in the world to be values driven in the warm and plentiful days of June. When the sun is shining and the grass is green. When the flowers are blooming and the birds are in song. When no one is hungry and the living is easy. In the warm and plentiful days of June, we can pretty much do what we want and everything will be just fine.

But in the dark days of February, when our resources are depleted and it’s cold and dark. When we’re hungry and survival isn’t guaranteed, we can’t just do what we want. We make a wrong turn and everything won’t be just fine.

So what can we do? To maximise our chances? To try and make sure that our values don’t perish and get blown away on the wintery, icy gale?

In this blog, I discuss my own experience and beliefs. The things that have helped me personally and that I hope will keep me and my business true when February comes round once again.

I can’t promise the ideas here will be as useful to you as they have been to me. I can only say they are borne of experience and that they have served me well.

How can a business become values driven?

I read an article once (maybe 25 years ago) which talked about 2 polar opposite methods of creating a values driven organisation. I’ll paraphrase the methods here:

Method 1: Collaborative Brainstorming and creative consolidation
In this first method, we gather together all of the senior players and opinion formers in the business. Those who define how things are done around here. Depending on the nature of your business, it might be between 10% and 30% of your colleagues. We lay out the problem beforehand (we want to create a values driven organisation) and arrange a big workshop that will last a full day. Everyone comes prepared having thought about the things they believe, the way they want the company to behave. Depending on the numbers, we break ourselves down into groups and run whiteboard / flipcharts sessions to try and get agreement on the things that are critical. We share and consolidate. A smaller group of talented wordsmiths and communication specialists takes the output and in good faith they try to consolidate the output of the day into a charter or a credo or a commitment that we can all live by. The words are inspirational and the top management agree to be bound by the values.In this way, the company becomes values driven.

Method 2: Consultative DictatorshipIn this method, we go to the most powerful person in charge and ask them what they believe. We write it down and publish the results. In this way, the company becomes values driven.

I hope that you have a good picture in your mind of the process, and style or feel of these polar opposite methods.

Of course in the real world, it’s rare that either of the polar extremes are followed and it’s normally somewhere away from the radical ends of the spectrum.

In my 30 or so years of being held to account, I’ve seen both of these methods used and before I start to advocate either, I’d like to pose a question.

What will guide us?

We all make decisions every day.

And every day, in our businesses or organisations, our people make decisions.

Sometimes those decisions are small, not challenging and they have little impact: Shall I have coffee or tea?

Sometimes those decisions are bigger, they’re tricky to optimise and they have greater impact: Should we introduce a new product line?

Sometimes, in the dark days, those decisions are huge, they are impossible to optimise, they impact the lives of our people and the existence of our organisations: Should we cut our costs by making some of our people redundant or accept lower profits while we acquire new customers?

The harder the decision, the closer to the top it floats. It’s right that it should.

So as leaders in our organisations, it falls to us to make the hardest decisions.

In my organization, it falls to me.

And so to the question: When I’m forced to make the hardest decisions where there is no obvious right answer, when all the choices are painful, what will guide me?

Will it be the finely crafted and word-smithed statement of our company values that was born in a hotbed of creativity and collaboration by the influencers in my business?

Or will it be the things that I believe at the deepest and most fundamental level?

For me, there can be only one answer. In the darkest days, for our hardest decisions, we will be guided by our fundamental beliefs. I must tell everyone that this will be the case and embrace it. If this is my guilty secret, then I will be in trouble.

And knowing it will end with my fundamental beliefs, I conclude that the only sustainable course of action is to start there too and embrace it.

So as unpalatable as it may sound to some well read modern managers, the route that I advocate for creating a sustainable, values driven organisation is closer to “Consultative Dictatorship”.

It’s definitely possible to succeed via the other route but I think it takes a very special sort of person to be in charge. Someone who can sublimate their own beliefs and replace them with a credo designed by committee and then carry it through to guide their actions in extremis.

In my experience, such people do not often make it to the top of their organisations.

And of course, it’s entirely possible that the carefully crafted credo aligns completely with the personal beliefs of the most senior leader. If it does, then it’s either a very fortunate accident, the result of careful recruitment, or the “Collaborative Brainstorming and Creative Consolidation” process was somehow perverted and overly influenced by the beliefs of that leader.

If the values should come from the leader, what to do?

Humans are complicated and we believe many things. Some of them are short lived and some have stood the test of time. Some of them have more relevance in a business context and some less.

Some things we’d like to think we believe but when it comes to a hard test, our actions might tell a different story.

What do I believe and why?

Of course I believe many things but these few have been with me for many years and they’ve been relevant in my business and personal life. I’ll come back to each of them to elaborate but I know many readers love a list(!):

  • Life is short so be happy
  • Injustice offends me
  • To go fast, go alone. To go far, go with an amazing team
  • Trust is a precious and fragile thing
  • The devil (and the delight) is in the detail
  • Certainty is a most dangerous illusion

Life is short so be happy

My father in law died very suddenly and surprisingly in the late 90s and my own father died from his 2nd heart attack in 2000. Both were quite young and their sudden disappearance amplified the temporary nature of our lives. I believe that we’re only here once and even if you believe otherwise, it’s surely best to maximise the time that we have.

My 2nd conclusion was that happiness is what really matters.

For me that means the happiness of my family, friends and those in my business life too.

Injustice offends me

And there is so much injustice in the world that I can do almost nothing about.

But in my business, I don’t tolerate it.

  • It’s unacceptable for team members not to pull their weight
  • It’s unacceptable for managers to dump on their teams.
  • It’s unacceptable for a contract to be loaded in favour of the client or their supplier.
  • It’s unacceptable for the strong to take from the weak

It’s unsustainable and creates a ticking bomb. We can’t know when it will explode. Experience tells me that it won’t be at a convenient time!

When I was a younger man I was asked to recover a large and failing programme (capital value of about £200m). One of my key suppliers had let us down badly and it was clear they were in breach of contract.

I wish that I could remember the name of the lawyer I went to see at Eversheds, it’s lost to me now! But I am forever grateful to him.

As we discussed the case and considered the possible outcomes, he pushed me to look beyond the surface injustice and to search for something even more sustainable.

He gave me a book and asked if I would read it before our next meeting. The authors (Fisher and Ury) had learned their craft advising in the peace settlement between the Egyptians and Israelis and they ran the negotiation skills courses at Harvard. The book was called Getting to Yes.

Like a few other books, this was a turning point in my life and I contemplated an alternative route to resolving the issue with my failing supplier. The book urged me to find ways to generate value for all the parties in my dispute and to see things from their point of view.

I never took the failing supplier to court. We worked out a new agreement that allowed me to recover the broken programme and the supplier to recover their lost position.

The book advocated an approach called Win Win. It seemed to me like such an obvious thing to do but ran counter to the overwhelming management philosophy in the business at that time. I adopted it as my own. I use it as a way of avoiding injustices in my business life and it has served me well.

But removing injustice is only the beginning.

When I start to consider why I have what I have and how I came to get it, I’m drawn to a further conclusion: When I’ve gone above and beyond that which could reasonably have been expected of me, huge and unforeseen benefits come my way. In the things that I learned, in the friends that I made, and in the recognition I received. For me this was the most powerful element. Not just obliterating the situations that march inevitably to “lose lose”. But seeing how far I can take the win – for my family, my friends, the people in my business and our clients.

To go far, go with an amazing team

As I progressed in my management and leadership career, the problems that I was called on to solve became bigger and more complex. Quite early I was faced with situations that would be impossible to solve on my own, no matter how hard i worked.

And because I’d been successful at making bad things come good, there seemed to be a queue of the most senior people happy to invite me into their world, even when I was increasingly ignorant about their problem domain. I’m grateful for all that experience and I loved every minute of it.

The next realisation for me was that my ignorance meant micro managing a solution would be impossible. A few years later, I came to believe that for me, micro managing is almost always sub optimal.

The philosopher and poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it most beautifully:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t begin by gathering wood, cutting boards and distributing work.
But awaken within the heart of man the desire for the vast and endless sea.”

Trust is a precious and fragile thing

I’ve written before about trust so I’ll precis here:

  • Trust isn’t binary. We don’t move from a position of no trust to trusting someone with our lives. Rather we trust them somewhat and as the evidence builds, we trust them more or less.
  • It’s a cliche (but true) to say that trust takes a lifetime to build and a moment to destroy.
  • Rebuilding lost trust is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. And the fragility of the rebuilt trust is extreme.

Some of the components of trust are irrational (for instance, we tend to trust people that look and sound like ourselves).

Some of the components are completely rational and evidence based:

  • Is the person predictable?
  • Do they do what they say?
  • Are we safe here?
  • Do they abuse their position of power?
  • And of course there are more

When there is no trust, complex mechanisms must be built to contain the potentially harmful behaviours.

Anyone familiar with the idea of unintended consequences will quickly recognise the potential for those complex containing mechanisms to backfire.

When there is trust, the containment can be lightweight and everyone can move more quickly.

The devil (and the delight) is in the detail

Anyone who follows tech even slightly will know that 2016, in many ways, was a pretty horrible year for Samsung. They created the Note 7 which was hailed by the industry influencers as the most remarkable phone outside of Apple. High praise.

But then…

…reports started to surface about them spontaneously combusting.

They announced a recall and issued replacements but unfortunately there was reports of the replacements catching fire too.

The observant amongst you may have noticed that the picture does not show a Note 7. Rather it’s the old house for my chickens that was given a viking send off!

At the time of writing (January 2017), the lessons learned are not all public but a lack of attention to detail must surely be one of the components of this disastrous product launch.

In my opinion, the areas likely to fall into question will include:

  • The prioritisation of the design criteria (excessive focus on thin-ness)
  • The engineering of the battery and the space allowed
  • The testing programme
  • The communications around the original failures
  • The planning and preparation for the recall
  • The re-engineering and testing of the modified product

Lurking deep within the everyday ways of doing things in our organizations lie the seeds of our potential downfall.

Waiting for the right conditions to bite. And their teeth are not designed to give us a playful nibble!

They can only be found by diving deep.

If you have a tendency to skim across the surface then I urge you to beware!

It’s not only the bad things that can be hidden deep.

The quiet and modest stars in our business also live here. Those who don’t try to use every opportunity to make themselves look great; but deliver amazing value every day because they just can’t help it.

If you never take a deep dive into the detail, it’s hard for your organisation to deliver sustainable excellence.

Certainty is a most dangerous illusion

In my experience, many (most) people have a deep rooted fear of uncertainty. We like to know where we’re going and what will happen.

This hunger can make us all grasp at some promised tomorrow, even when rationally, we know that it can’t be true.

We want Father Christmas to be real so we believe it and build a complex model in our minds to explain how it can be so.

In the UK, many young couples, starting out in life, looked at the 10 year history of house prices and they borrowed crippling amounts of money. They believed they were purchasing an appreciating asset and somewhere to live. What could be wrong with that?

House prices were only going one way, up.

It was as safe as “bricks and mortar”.

Except that they didn’t and it wasn’t.

The amazing thing is that it was a pattern that had occurred before; at least twice in living memory.

Who could have predicted it? Anyone.

Who did predict it? Far too few.

It wasn’t just young couples starting out in life who were tricked by this. Clever bankers created increasingly complex financial instruments that allowed corporations to gamble on this “certainty”.

These 2 graphs are a pretty good proxy for the fake certainty that almost destroyed the global financial system and led to the global recession. It was the ordinary people who bore the cost. And the cost was measured in trillions of dollars (1 trillion = 1 million million = 1,000,000,000,000).

There are so many examples of fake certainty, they are too numerous to mention and they can affect all our lives.

They are obvious in hindsight but more tricky while we’re in the moment.

I believe the future is uncertain, really uncertain.

If the world is uncertain, being able to move quickly is critical.

I believe that it will be winter again. I just don’t know when.

Recap

So far I’ve advocated a slightly dictatorial approach to creating a values driven organisation and laid out some of the things I believe that have stood the test of time and been relevant in my business and personal life.

It’s been a long haul to get to here so thanks for sticking with it. I guess that’s the nature of a blog that accompanies a 60 minute talk.

With the groundwork in place, I’ll take what’s left of your good will and explain how I try to tie these together in my business.

From beliefs to values

In my business there are 5 things that we always talk about when we talk about values:

Win Win

We call this our ethical framework and is rooted in my deeply held belief that injustice is offensive. It goes far beyond the removal of injustice and we try to find ways of helping all our stakeholders to win. Our Customer Centricity is here and we try to help our clients achieve amazing things. It includes our commitment to all the stakeholders whose lives we touch.

People

We want to go far so we’ll build an amazing team. My business has no product except the amazing people within it and they solve the hardest problems for our clients. Our strategy for people can be found in the first few pages of any introduction to HR and it has four elements.

Attract: We will make our business look shiny from a distance so that it catches the sun and draws peoples attention. People who might want to work for us (and people who might need our help).

Recruit: Then we use the best techniques we can find to filter the most talented and invite them to join us. Because we were clear about our values, people are drawn to us who have a similar belief set.

Develop: To solve the hardest problems, our people need to be talented and skilled. We need to hone our skills and dedicate time and effort to being the best that we can be.

Retain: The longer our people remain in our business, the better they become.

  • They understand our clients businesses.
  • They understand how to collaborate with the key players who work at our clients.
  • They understand how to collaborate with their colleagues.
  • They learn how to breathe life into our values.

Integrity

If trust is the goal then integrity (being honest and transparent) is a great way to achieve it.

I don’t insist that our people are mostly honest, most of the time. I insist they are completely honest all of the time. It’s binary. Not a grey scale.

And we go further:

  • If there is a truth that could make us uncomfortable then tell it
  • If there is a truth that could hurt us then tell it
  • If there is a truth that could kill us then tell it

The most painful truths are better on the table exposed in the brightest sunlight.

Then we can fix them. When they lurk in the dark corners, they fester and grow.

Excellence

The devil and the delight is in the detail.

We’re proud of the quality that we deliver and we have many processes that help to ensure it remains. We know that it’s not enough to take a cursory look at the way our business works. Rather that we must dive deep into the detail to be as sure as we can that we’ve tackled the danger and are bringing the treasure to the surface.

I also ask our people to remember that quality is not an absolute standard but rather must be “fit for purpose”.

For example, we’ve built huge systems that control the “clean room” compounding of drugs for individual patients suffering from the most serious illnesses.

And, we’ve built systems that decide how many t-shirts should be on the shelves of a Primark store on a Saturday afternoon.

The consequences of mistakes in each system are very different. The definition of excellence in each one is very different.

Agility

The future is uncertain and Darwin is often paraphrased as saying “it’s not the strongest that will survive but those most able to change”.

We try to remove the elements in our business that create inertia and this can run counter to many established practises.

We believe in the Theory of Constraints and how it’s impossible to make long term predictions about exactly which constraint will need our close attention and resources.

In the work we do for our clients, we use agile methods for every project and aim to show our clients the progress we’re making as often as possible.

Ideas into actions

In this final section, I’ll attempt to pull the whole thing together and explain how I try to ensure that our business values are sustainable.

I’ve already covered the first two sections and I promise the remaining blocks will be quicker!

Write them down

The trouble with writing them down is that it makes you look a bit like every other company and many of them have failed to make the values stick.

But I still advocate it. Having a permanent record allows your people to judge for themselves if the words and the actions are aligned. It allows you to create an army of helpers that with the right circumstances can hold your overall organisation to account. More of that later.

Some organisations might believe that writing them down is a key element of the communications programme. It isn’t.

Get good at selling them!

This is the key element of the communication plan and if it’s not done well, success is pretty unlikely!

It has to be done by the most senior person in your business.

And you should find many ways of communicating the same message. People are different and they engage with ideas in different ways:

  • Some people need a discussion
  • Some people need to see a long document that paints in every detail
  • Some people are visual and need a diagram
  • Some people will disbelieve everything until they’ve seen many pieces of supporting evidence over a long period
  • Some people only believe it if their friends confirm that it’s true
  • And this is not a complete list. It goes on and on

In our business we have a number of ways. For example:

  • I personally invite every new starter to join me in a Values Workshop. In groups of 8 or 10 we spend about 2 hours together. I talk to them about the values, why they’re important to me and how I came to believe the things I believe. We discuss what they mean in various contexts and I help them to understand some of the less obvious ways we have of communicating them.
  • Create symbolic policies which embody a value or a number of the values. Embed the policy into the dna of your business. For example we enshrine integrity (honesty) in our Project Assurance process. It’s designed to make sure there is one version of the truth about the status of all the project that we undertake for our clients.

Those who like them…

… will be drawn towards you. Those who don’t, won’t.

As your reputation for being a genuinely sustainable values driven business grows, people will start to notice you. Both clients and potential employees. They will be eager to work with you.

Because we are complex, there will always be those who see things slightly differently and this creates a tension which is valuable. It keeps the debate alive and makes people think about the actions we’ve taken and those that we plan to take.

Enlist the help…

…of everyone to make sure the business stays true.

Because my values workshops are unscripted, they are all slightly different. But usually, towards the end of the session, I ask everyone if they would like to work in a business driven by the values I’ve described. So far, the answer to that question has been 100% yes!

And then I ask them for their help. It’s all of our responsibility. I can commit to basing the decisions I make on the values. I can’t commit that every decision taken taken every day by everyone in our business will be likewise.

One of our mantras is “don’t fail quietly” and the help I ask for is just that.

When mistakes are made…

… correct them as quickly as you can.

I say “when” and not “if” because mistakes are guaranteed.

I will make mistakes.

I rely on the help I enlisted in the previous section to identify and correct the course.

And so to conclude

My aim is not to create “quite a good business”.

My aim is to create an extraordinary business that does astonishing things.

  • Extraordinary in what we achieve for our clients.
  • Extraordinary as a place to work and grow.
  • Extraordinary in how we give back to those who have not yet been so fortunate as us.
  • Extraordinary in the value that we generate for our shareholders.

I don’t believe this is easy.

I don’t believe it can be achieved through snake oil or magic.

I believe it can only be achieved through sustained hard work, by nurturing a living organism that is driven by fundamental beliefs that it protects and cherishes through thick and thin.

An organisation that doesn’t just live by it’s values in the long hot, hazy, lazy, plentiful days of summer…

But an organisation that stays true to the things it believes and uses those to steer it safely through the dark, desperate, dismal and dangerous days of winter.

That’s all folks!

Once again, thanks for reading all the way. I hope you found some value.

If you’re embarked on your own journey to becoming values driven I wish you the very best.

If you’d like to discuss any of the ideas I’ve put forward then please make contact.

And finally, if you’re facing some really tough business challenges that can be solved by a flexible team of talented, trustworthy and professional systems specialists, you know what to do!

🙂

Share this post on

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read next

Officiousness is worse than totalitarianism

Let me put a little part of myself at stake. I’ll redirect some management fire towards myself and try to explain why doing more and enforcing to do so does exactly the opposite. And drive everyone around closer to that thin line marking where inner peace transforms into berserk rage.

The key assumption is: doing more of what?

Meet […]

Read more