Values often come across as meaningless. If you identify with this statement, you’re not alone. From my research and work with clients, I have found this to be the predicament facing many organizations. This piece is not about decrying values. Rather it is about providing guidance and language that can help ensure values drive actual behavior.
First, it is important to ask the right questions to provide guidance on how to frame behaviors. Some companies use answers to questions such as “What do we fundamentally care about?” You will often see single-word answers such as “Integrity,” or “Respect.” These words hint at behaviors but often stay quite lofty and vague for most people.
We’ve found that it can be helpful to replace these one-word answers — or complement them — with principles. In my experience, these show up in what are often called “leadership behaviors,” “leadership commitments” or “operating principles.” For the purpose of this piece, I will focus on “leadership principles,” since in my experience this is the most common means of translating potentially generic values into specific behaviors companies deem critical. These short statements are based on the question, “how should we (leaders) behave?” The trend is borne out of a need to provide clearer guidelines and “guardrails” that can actually be applied in day-to-day interactions. Principle-based statements provide behavioral language that is broad enough to apply to a multitude of situations, but clear enough to actually guide behaviors. Verbs are better than nouns. As one of our clients suggests, to be really clear on the behaviors you want, consider articulating the “contra-behaviors,” i.e., those you specifically do not want, but often observe in the current culture.
Second, it’s important to look to the organization’s purpose as a guide for selecting the most critical principles. Purpose addresses “why do we exist?” (We can thank Simon Sinek for clarifying that one!) Purpose must come first because it helps determine what values or principles really matter every day. For example, the principle of “we always put safety first” matters a great deal in a mining company, but is probably not the most crucial statement for a strategy consulting firm. Purpose helps you make important choices about what behaviors really matter.
Third, consider putting these short-listed principles through an “edginess” filter. In other words, they should be both important and difficult for the organization to achieve. If not, they are probably platitudes. To ensure they are edgy, ask the following questions:
- Do the principles clearly guide the critical decisions and conversations that the organization needs? This means that they either must be written in a way that indicates the key behaviors you want. At a minimum there must be a narrative around them that helps drive those key behaviors. Preferably both.
- Are they the most critical behaviors required to enact your organizational purpose? Ask yourself if you focused on these behaviors, and only these, would you get the results you want?
- Are they tough to implement? This test ensures we aren’t focusing on things that we should be doing as a natural part of our day-to-day business. John F. Kennedy embodied this spirit in his 1962 speech when he explained why the US should go to the moon: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…..” Difficulty has a way of focusing collective energy.
Lessons in Crafting Leadership Principles at Roche
Roche, a leading pharmaceutical company, provides a useful example on how to craft principles based on the above guidelines. The company’s purpose is “doing now what patients need next.” Roche’s seven Leadership Commitments derive from this purpose. The statements in parentheses describe how they meet one or more of our three tests.
- I take a genuine interest in people. (In a science-driven organization, this can be forgotten. But it’s critical because of the need to unlock human creativity).
- I listen carefully, tell the truth and explain ‘the why’. (Complex decision-making contexts mean leaders must help people understand the rationale of decisions).
- I empower and trust people to make decisions. (Again, trust matters more than ever when leaders don’t have the capacity to be in every decision).
- I discover and develop the potential in people. (Knowledge work requires an intense focus on development; retention is paramount).
- I strive for excellence and extraordinary results. (Pharma companies are under intense and constant regulatory scrutiny all the time; going above and beyond is required).
- I set priorities and simplify work. (A highly complex, operational environment puts a premium on simplification. It’s also really hard to do in a research-driven business).
- I congratulate people for a job well done. (In an organization with high standards, it’s easy to forget that people still need encouragement in tackling difficult and important work).
This Roche example underscores other key takeaways in crafting leadership principles:
- Keep them simple. Less is more. From my experiences, five to six seem best. Be careful with any more than that; the narrative can get muddled.
- Ask: “Why are these principles important for us? How do they help us live our purpose?” If they don’t seem both important and tough (or “edgy”), they probably shouldn’t make the list. A global company I spoke with actually printed out their mission statement and displayed it prominently in the room when they were having an important meeting to craft their leadership principles.
- Leaders must walk the talk. They need to display behaviors in accordance with the espoused principles and their underlying values.
- Provide constant reinforcement. Link principles explicitly to critical decisions and behaviors. These decisions and behaviors are your proof points to show how principles are practically applied. Remember, it takes lots of repetition.
- Examine the “contra-behaviors,” i.e., the behaviors we don’t want, but often see, to make the values concrete and usable. Make these contra-behaviors explicit.
As the need for collaborative problem solving and innovation increase exponentially, better leadership is required. Clear expectations and guidelines are at a premium. Remember that change might start at the top, but it never ends there. Be patient in crafting a process that embeds principles into meaning for people in their day-to-day context. It will go a long way to truly making them work in your organization and nurturing purpose-driven leaders.
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