Gale Mote/Tree Full of Owls

I remember one time viewing a YouTube clip of Herb Kelleher, chairman of Southwest Airlines, discussing how he would characterize the culture of his organization. He went on to say that describing culture is much like the United States Supreme Court’s definition of pornography – “while it is difficult to put into words, you know it when you see it.”

Culture is something you feel the minute you walk into an organization. Immediately, you begin to sense whether employees and customers enjoying being there, how decisions are made and who is accountable for results.

As Gallup revealed in 1999 during their groundbreaking research on the 12 Questions of a strong workplace, clarity in expectations is where all success begins. “Do I know what is expected of me at work?” is the first question, in order of priority, employees need answered to be engaged in their work.

For many organizations, this entails having disks, wikis and websites full of job descriptions, standard operating procedures and checklists. For others, it means clarifying the mission, vision and core values of the business – who are we, who do we want to be and what do we believe – what do we hold as sacred and non-negotiable.

The challenge with core values is how they get onto the walls of organizations and rarely, consistently, into the halls. With the right focus and discipline, these next few steps will help to transition any company’s core values into living, breathing behaviors demonstrated enthusiastically by the masses.

First, be sure to define core values in behavioral terms. For example, openness is a great word that means different things to different people. To some, it means being open to the ideas and suggestions of others – to stoke an idea before soaking it! For others, freely sharing information and being totally transparent with opinions and feedback is essential to openness.

When identifying core values, follow three guidelines: short, simple and descriptive of outcomes, not the steps. Focus on the vital few, not the trivial many that will drive the desired outcomes. Present the core values in a simple format or an acronym easy for employees to recall and apply. Allow employees the freedom, within defined boundaries to demonstrate their talents – limit scripting wherever possible.

Next, ensure those in leadership are 100 percent aligned around the core values. Each must embrace the value by demonstrating, in action, the desired behavior. As John Mellencamp sings in his rock song, “Perfect World” – “It’s what you do and not what you say.”  Be quick about moving people out of leadership positions if their behaviors send mixed signals about the company’s core values. Senior management must have a zero tolerance policy for those managers who give lip service to what matters most.

Probably the most powerful action to engrain core values into the fabric of the organization is engaging in conversations and providing performance coaching. “You get what you inspect; not what you expect!”  When managers ask me how they can help transition their cultures, I say, “Get out of your office and talk with people.”  I remember Horace Shultz, former CEO of the Ritz Carlton, used to wander the halls of his hotels, randomly asking people, “What are we doing around here that is stupid?”

Genuinely ask for input and then really listen. “One of our core values puts people first.  Do you think that’s true?  What examples can you give me? How can we improve?”

Engaging in frequent, informal conversations will help you, as a manger, know what is working and what isn’t. These conversations also allow you to share the stories of best practices around the organization to keep the momentum growing.

Coach employees at every teachable moment. When you see great work, say it. “Raj – I want you to know how much I appreciate you helping out at the receptionist desk yesterday.  By stepping in with a positive attitude, you demonstrated our core values of taking ownership and being a team player very nicely.”

Never miss an opportunity to help employees find a better way to demonstrate a core value. “Erica – I couldn’t help but overhear your phone conversation with that customer. Are you okay?  She sounded like a tough cookie to me! How do you think it might have gone differently?” Listen and show empathy. “I know it’s difficult when our customers don’t understand Medicare billing regulations. She’s sure to call back. What will you say?”  Listen, offer practical tips and remind them of the goal. “Maintaining a helpful, positive attitude is critical to achieving high levels of customer engagement. When you demonstrate this core value effectively, we have the edge on our competition. Thank you for being open to my feedback.”

Lastly, recognition and celebration builds commitment. Find ways for employees to catch each other going above and beyond in living the values. Examples include a “Wall of Fame” where “I Saw What You Did and Appreciate It” notes are handwritten and posted for all to see or a special luncheon to honor those who have made living the values their personal mission. Remember to tell the story so everyone attending hears and understands how the values are coming alive.

Of course, bad systems win every time. In spite of behaviorally-based values, rock solid role models and exemplary coaching, conversations and recognition, core values die a quick death when they encounter systems out of alignment. These, including hiring and promotion practices, performance evaluation tools, measurements, incentives and accountability frameworks.  Be watchful of these pitfalls.

Employees enjoy working in organizations where the core values define a sense of purpose and create a culture where people want to stay and put forth their best effort.  Implement these steps and watch the values come off the walls and into the halls.

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