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5 ways to inspire a values-rich culture

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This guest post is by Ann Rhoades, author of “Built on Values: Creating an Enviable Culture that Outperforms the Competition,” and president of People Ink, a culture-change consulting firm. She was also a founding executive of JetBlue. Follow her on Twitter @Peopleink.

Just by looking at the behavior of leaders, you can tell what the values of a company really are. And all too often, those lived values bear almost no resemblance to the stated values — those lofty statements painted on the walls or sanctified in a mission statement. Many leaders want to believe that all they need to do is proclaim a set of values, and culture will magically change, but that does nothing to retool the actual values that inspire the day-to-day actions of employees on the front line.

The key is identifying your best employees – your “A Players” – and spread their values throughout the organization by hiring people who share those values and motivating all employees to live those values every day. We call this the “Values Blueprint” method of changing culture. Single departments and workgroups can also use this to create islands of excellence, even if top leaders are not ready to buy in.

I have found that five fundamental principles inform every successful values-based culture change:

  • You can’t force culture. You can only create environment. A culture is the culmination of the leadership, values, language, people processes, rules and other conditions, good or bad, within the organization. However, leaders cannot “create culture change,” even if it is badly needed; they can only create the right conditions for it to arise.
  • You are on the outside what you are on the inside. What many leaders don’t understand, except perhaps intellectually, is that you cannot create a great customer service organization if you treat employees badly. You can’t force people to smile and treat customers well, especially when they feel ill-used themselves. Not surprisingly, those organizations that do customer service best also treat their employees best.
  • Success is doing the right things the right way. One of the best reasons for redefining corporate values is that well-defined values can help you — and your employees — make better decisions. In values-rich companies, most decisions about customer service can be made by front-line employees. A win there is a happy customer who did not have to speak to a supervisor. By defining your values and the behaviors based on them, you also simplify the task of day-to-day decision-making: “Does that make sense in light of our values?” is all you or your employees have to ask yourselves.
  • People do exactly what they are incented to do. Your values will be perceived as hollow and meaningless unless you base compensation and rewards on expressions of the behaviors that go along with the values. Hiring methods, too, must be revised to select people who already possess the values important to you. You must be courageous enough to fire those who don’t. Even long-time employees. Even executives. Otherwise, they will render your ideal culture impossible.
  • Input = Output. Organizations will only get out of something what they are willing to put into it. Values maintenance — what we call continuous improvement — is as important as values creation. In other words, you are never fully “done” with culture change; you must be vigilant that no one backslides into old ways.

The results you want can be built on shared, strategic values and financial responsibility. Companies can do worse than emulate JetBlue and Southwest. Both companies have achieved strong financial results because we created values-rich cultures that encouraged all employees to contribute to their financial success — and have fun.