The Heart of Culture

Corporate values should stand for something, be the focus of management, and be known and shared. Organizations have core values at the heart of the organization providing a common direction for everyone and guiding everyone’s behavior all the time. Harold Kurstedt
THE MAIN POINT (72 seconds reading time)

Many artifacts and traits relate to your culture. None is more important than your values: the core, or heart, of the culture, around which all other artifacts and traits revolve. Today, most organizations have identified their values in some form or another (not always called values).

Values are enduring, hard-to-change beliefs that focus the behaviors of the corporation. Family values include such beliefs as education, fun, work, prejudice, and pride. I wouldn’t want to be part of a family with some of these values and would want to be part of a family with others. The United States Military Academy at West Point is famous for its values: duty, honor, country.

Corporate values can include these examples and others, such as safety (DuPont is famous for safety as its focus – DuPont originated as a maker of dynamite.), service, quality, and entrepreneurism. The value of entrepreneurism might be expressed in terms of other values such as innovation and individual autonomy. Consider the mutually exclusive nature of the values of entitlement and entrepreneurism. Not all values are considered helpful; and I favor entrepreneurism over entitlement. The value of quality might be expressed in terms of cooperation, teamwork, joy of workmanship, honesty, openness, discipline, inquisitiveness, consistency, accuracy, resourcefulness, and others. The value of service might be expressed as client focus, responsiveness, timeliness, and others.

Corporate values should stand for something, be the focus of management, and be known and shared. Organizations can list many values at play among their people. However, organizations have core values at the heart of the organization providing a common direction for everyone and guiding everyone’s behavior all the time. The organization also will have peripheral values held by subgroups in the organization, which have subcultures. We’d expect the marketing group of an organization to behave differently from the accounting group because of the work they do. We’d also expect the values of an organization’s clients to affect the organization. (For example, I find government contractors to pick up values typical of the government agencies they serve.) We find core values shared by everyone and peripheral values shared by subgroups.

THE FOLLOW UP (131 seconds reading time)

Most organizations profess values. However, most organizations have trouble communicating, reinforcing, and assessing the usefulness of the values. The reason for the difficulty is that organizations tend not to operationalize their values. The word operationalize isn’t in the dictionary and was introduced by Edwards Deming, the quality guru. Operationalize means to put something that is amorphous into a form we can do business with. Here’s an example. We might have the value of excellence. Excellence doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. So, we have to operationalize the conduct that means we’re doing excellence. For the case of excellence, I believe I’d get many different responses to the question, “If I walk into your office and catch you doing excellence, what would I see or hear that would tell me you’re doing excellence?” That is, we have to describe the behavior that means we’re living out what we stand for. Most companies don’t do that.

In my organization, I chose to have only two values. That made it easier to focus on the values. The values were responsiveness (similar to client focus or service) and resourcefulness (similar to quality). Responsiveness came first and foremost. The concise operationalization of responsiveness was “We listen carefully to what the client needs and wants and willingly and enthusiastically provide just that.” You can consider several details in the operationalization. Separate wants and needs and resolve what will serve the client best and satisfy the client. Provide just that means we don’t underdo or overdo our deliverables. The concise operationalization we used for resourcefulness was “If an old mop handle satisfies the need best, we deliver the mop handle.”

These operationalizations have more meaning when we understand the identity of the organization. The organization was a research laboratory in a large university. Universities aren’t into mop handles when something involving new technology and breakthrough understanding could be studied. Resourcefulness is more about fit than quality. But, is quality more like perfection or fit? In my organization, the answer was fit. The general thinking in a faculty member’s research activities is, “I have the answer; everyone should come to me.” My organization was more like, “You have a need; we’ll come to you.” Notice the responsiveness in the second statement. Notice the difference between who comes to whom and I versus we. Notice also how counter-culture my organization was from the culture of the typical university.

People outside the company and people inside the company will reinforce each other about what each thinks the values of the company are. In the example of my organization, we were delivering to our most significant client when he said to me, “I come to you because you’re responsive.” I thought, “We are responsive aren’t we?” We began a purposeful effort to reinforce resourcefulness both in terms of how our clients saw us and how we reinforced what we believed in. As we look at the artifacts of culture shortly, I’ll identify how we used each artifact to reinforce responsiveness in our belief and in how others in the university and in the client community saw us. Here’s yet another reinforcing cycle. The more we behaved responsively, the more clients and others talked about our responsiveness, which lead us to even more responsiveness.

Do you know your organization’s values? How many are there? Which is the central value? Would you expect similarity or variation if those around you responded to the question, “If I walk into your office and catch you doing [the central value], what would I see or hear?”? If you asked your client or a competing company what your central value is and how the value would be operationalized, would you get the answer you get from those inside the organization? How important is the consistency within or from outside the organization?