Do Your Values Just Hang On a Wall?

“I suggest you take another look at your core values as they are not being delivered.”

The words were uttered at an exit review by an employee on his way out.

This story was told to me by a retail executive who just had one of her peers quit. It was the story of a promising manager who resigned out of frustration. He had had enough. That indictment was uttered as he literally walked out the door.

When I was told what he said I smiled in agreement as I know “words mean absolutely nothing.” Organizations have them on their website, decorating the walls, and they are uttered at every gathering. But to some employee they carry real meaning.

This gentleman received multiple promotions over just a few short years. He was identified as a high potential, but just like that his cup runneth over and he was history.

Values should be the foundation

If you look at any website, you see beautiful poetic wording that speaks to the importance of people in the organization. The wordsmiths who concoct those words say the perfect things. However, somewhere along the line the words lose their meaning.

We, as organizations say all the right things, but do we live them? We have all heard the phrase “People are our greatest asset.” Yet for too many companies it’s just words strung together with no connection to the inner workings.

Someone told me his company brought in a PR firm to help them craft a message. So let me get this straight, you hire someone to say what you want to say, but you do not know what you stand for. Folks, if you have to bring in outside help to craft your message, you have already lost. Think about that for a moment.

What are your core values?

What does it mean to be you? What does your organization stand for? Can you recite, as a leader, what your organization means to the outside world? This is the new normal. You must be able to recite and believe in those words and live them in your organization. If you have to bring in outside help, you are already in trouble.

I learned leadership from a CEO whom I admire and talk about constantly. Her name is Sharon Patrick, who was the founding CEO of Martha Stewart. She set such a terrific example of how to build, nurture and grow an organization that I would watch her every move.

Why was she different? She lived and breathed acknowledgment and recognition. She managed from the bottom up. Everyone plays a role, and to her the bottoms up approach was what she instilled in all of us. The unsung hero was the real hero. Get their connection first and then you move up the chain.

Learning moments in life

I have a very dear friend, Peter Makowski, CEO of American Hospital based in Dubai. In our morning chat a few weeks back, he told me the story of his father who was a famous doctor. He told me that he would visit his father at the hospital, as his work hours were so erratic. His father being a world renowned doctor instilled in him the idea that everyone on the org chart plays a role within a hospital, from the cleaning crew to the doctors. The doctor may be the final arbiter of the treatment, but everyone you come in contact with plays a significant role in patient healing.

Peter and I met when I was at his hospital for a surgical procedure. While I was waiting, I read the employee newsletter finding a quote that has stayed with me since: “TAKE CARE OF THE PEOPLE WHO TAKE CARE OF THE PEOPLE. Those 11 words were to me transformative. I knew as I read them I must meet this guy. Who is he? Why would he say such a thing, and more importantly what was the grounding of that phrase? As he told me about his father I understood how much that statement meant to him and what an impression his father had made in his life.

My father made a similar impression on me. I remember the time when my older brother was headed off to college. My father had just bought a new car and in it we made a big family trip to the university to drop him off. As we moved his things out of the car, some workers were sitting in a truck watching. One of the workers approached my father and said, “We were just trying to figure out what you do. We thought you were probably a lawyer or a doctor.”

“No,” my father replied, “I’m just a plain old taxi driver who owns a small business in South Carolina.”

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Just as with Peter’s father, that was a learning moment for me. My father was already successful then, but regardless of your status, you remain humble even as success is bubbling up around you.

So yes, the foundation can be built, instilling in our offspring that people matter and so does the legacy you leave.

Core values are nothing more than who you are, what your organization stands for and what the meaning of your company is.

If you can figure that out and steadfastly stay true to that you are on your way to success and however you measure it.

Who are you? And what does your organization stand for?

Ron Thomas

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.