Monday, September 1, 2014

Teach People What the Values Mean

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This post is part of a series in which I'm analyzing the efforts of my organization to define and embrace core values through the six rules for doing so defined by Francois Nader, CEO of NPS Pharmaceuticals. For the series introduction, go here. For my comments on the first rule, go here. For my comments on the second rule, go here.

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Here's Nader's third rule, along with what he says about it in his HBR blog post:

Teach people what the values mean. This must come from the top. My senior executives and I made our values the language of leadership. They were embedded in how we worked and communicated at every level. Credibility is truly at the core of building a values-driven culture.

Time for some painful honesty here. I have not done this as well as I should. What I have done is ask our staff people to look at our values (and their associated behaviors) and to identify the things that they do that support them, and at least one area where they could make some conscious improvements. And I've done this along with them, thinking that I was leading by example. But Nader's comment on making your values your "language of leadership" makes me realize that I should be doing something more.

I think my attitude so far has been that our values are, and always will be, a work-in-progress. As I've already described, our values are aspirational--traits that not all of us already embody, but which we all agree we must better embody if our organization is going to be successful. And I think this mindset has allowed me to put my focus on our values on a kind of backburner, deriving satisfaction from incremental advancement rather than wholesale adoption.

But this has probably sent the wrong message. Even with values that are aspirational in nature--and perhaps especially so--people in the organization must see that they are taken seriously, and that the leaders are working just a diligently as anyone to embrace them.

In fact, looking ahead to Nader's next three rules, I see that they are all premised on this foundational idea. The leadership team in any organization that wants to create a values-driven culture must not only embody the values that have been identified, they must quickly come to equate leadership with allegiance to the values. And they must clearly communicate that throughout the organization in both words and actions.

Looking again at my organization's core values:

We lead the organization in creating new value for our members.

We are excited about growing as individuals and about growing the organization.

We act with honesty and professionalism in all our relationships.

We work together to deliver exceptional service.

I see things I do well and things I do not so well. I see things I do behind closed doors and things I do openly in front of everyone. And looking out across my leadership team and the rest of the people in my organization, I see the same patterns.

We have spent a lot of time defining our values and talking one-on-one about how individuals are or are not living up to them. What we haven't done as well as we should is put them front and center in our environment of intentional actions and begin the messy work of demonstrating how they can ideally be applied. That, I'm sure Nader would agree, is the best of all possible ways to teach people what they really mean.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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