Value a Strong Foundation

Patrick’s Weekly Leadership Tip

If you want people to live out the team’s values, don’t just state them. Give examples of what the value looks like in action. Be specific. Give multiple illustrations.

The entire company occupied nine of the ten seats in the room. I entered and took the final chair. In a short period, the company’s founders had created and refined a business concept, raised funds, and assembled a fantastic team of engineers, researchers, and experts who were setting out to make an extraordinary impact on the energy industry. Had we been asked to take a science or math exam, I would have undoubtedly scored at the end of the pack. Fortunately, I wasn’t invited to solve a complicated math problem or conduct a complex science experiment; the founders asked me to talk to them about building and leading a strong culture.

These founders are smart. They know two things.

  1. The group of nine will expand to 30 within the next six months.
  2. This core group will be the company’s future leaders, and they would be setting the foundation for the future organization’s culture.

When the meeting started, the founder explained that he had purchased copies ofThe Five-Week Leadership Challenge: 35 Actions Steps to Become the Leader You Were Meant to Be and shared that they would be reading the book together over the coming weeks. He further explained that he had invited me to spend an hour with the team kicking off their learning journey and talking about the importance of building a solid culture.

Let me share a part of our conversation about organizational values with you, as it will be helpful whether you are launching a start-up or find yourself embedded in the structure of a 100-year-old institution.

Imagine for a moment that you are constructing a building. You need a knowledgeable architect to design the structure, a team of carpenters to frame the building, and a competent manager to coordinate the many people who will play various roles throughout the project. However, none of it truly matters if you don’t get the foundation right. Mess up the concrete mix, fail to pour a thick enough pad, or slope the slab too much or in the wrong direction, and you will have problems for years to come.

The same is true for your organization. You can have founders with tremendous vision, financiers who invest in the idea, and qualified experts who join the team, but if you don’t build on a solid foundation, you will have problems for years to come.

When discussing team or organizational foundations, we use words like mission, purpose, and vision. These answer the following questions:

  1. Mission: What do we do?
  2. Purpose: Why are we doing it?
  3. Vision: Where do we get if we do it well?

The fourth area is values. Values answer:

– How will we act along the way?

– When resources are limited, what will take precedence?

– How will we treat one another and those we serve?

Doing any of the four – purpose, vision, mission, or values – poorly can contribute to a bad foundation, but my experience has taught me that values often suffer in two unique ways.

  1. The process of answering these key questions can be exhausting. It usually happens over a series of meetings, and it’s not uncommon for people to get bogged down at times. Writing a mission or purpose statement by a committee is tricky, and getting a room of people to agree on the exact wording gets grueling. Often, teams tackle values last when people are tired. So, they opt for a laundry list of good-sounding terms (e.g., collaboration, communication, trust, loyalty, and fun) without giving the task the level of attention and discernment it deserves.
  2. Teams typically do a half job with values. They limit their efforts to naming the values without doing the second step of translating value statements into behavioral examples. The problem with not completing the final part is leaving too much to chance.

Allow me to share an example of words and behaviors.

Think back to when you were a child. There was likely a time when someone told you to clean something – your bedroom at home, a locker at school, etc. Let’s say that you set out to do the task well and impress others with the quality of your work. At some point, the person directing your action returns to evaluate the results.

They inspect your work and ask, “Do you call this clean?”

Before you can answer, they tell you to try harder and explain they will return later to recheck your work. You try again but find yourself frustrated that you don’t understand exactly what the other person wants from you. At some point, either you pass inspection, time runs out, or you are dismissed as incapable of doing the job well.

The crux of the problem is found in the question, “Do you call this clean?” People are operating from different definitions of cleanliness. The kid thinks they are doing a good job. The adult is frustrated, thinking the kid is trying to cut corners. Both are aggravated.

The same is valid for values.

I’m not saying that your team members are children needing an adult to lord over them. Go that route, and you will have more problems than an untidy office space. What I’m suggesting is that coming up with a laundry list of values, posting them on the wall, and then expecting people to align their behaviors to a word or two is going to lead to frustration on both sides of the equation. If you want people to live out the team’s values, don’t just state them. Give examples of what the value looks like in action. Be specific. Give multiple illustrations.

Use this week’s video and tool to bring the values discussion to life. Watch the video and then work to complete the worksheet. The form provides space for two values and four behaviors. Push yourself to provide two behavioral examples for each value statement, but don’t let the worksheet’s layout limit your efforts. If you can think of more examples, write them down.

I hope you will also listen to and learn from this week’s podcast conversation with Andrew East. Andrew is a rare combination. He’s an NFL athlete, content creator, and entrepreneur. Along with his wife, Olympic gold medal gymnast Shawn Johnson, Andrew creates family-friendly content, tackles tough challenges for worthy causes, and works to live out his purpose. Andrew and I discuss pivoting when things don’t go as planned, living out your purpose in unexpected ways, and enjoying the journey.

This Week’s Questions

  1. What are your team’s values?
  2. If you were to ask your fellow team members to list your team’s values, how would they do?
  3. Beyond simply listing the values, how clear are you and your colleagues in explaining what those values look like in action?

This Week’s Challenge

Pick one of your team’s values. Send an email to your team members asking each person to send you a note answering two questions: 1) How would you define that value? If someone is living out that value, what is one action we would see them take? Compare and contrast their responses.


Photo by Scott Blake on Unsplash