Values? Do We Need Them? Ask United Airlines.

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I was shocked earlier this week to see the video of United Airlines forcibly dragging a doctor off one of its airplanes because United needed the seat for a crew connecting with another flight.

Click here to see the article and video in the New York Times. Warning this is violent.

This is an excellent example of why organizations and government departments must have a set of Core Values and how executives at the highest level must live by those core values and demand their people live by them.

Click here to read how to create a Core Value Statement for your organization.

Click here for a few tips on aligning behaviors and actions with Core Values.

While there were many ways of resolving this with additional bonuses, reimbursable tickets, or sending the flight crew via alternate airlines, etc. United chose the worst alternative, treating the doctor like cargo. The CEO’s statement, “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.” reinforced that the CEO viewed customers as cargo. The fact that United met their legal and regulatory requirements does not change the values by which their executives and the acting manager seem to view customers.

These actions reflect the behavior and actions endorsed by United Airlines. I’ve written two articles that I hope will help your organization. The first describes how to create a Core Value Statement. The second describes a few tips on how to promote those values within your culture.

Nestled in the crest of a hilltop near my home is the high-tech campus of what was once one of the world leaders in technology. A few years ago I was there to talk with some friends and meet some new managers.

Having passed through the security atrium, my escort and I began a long walk through a maze of engineering and marketing cubicles. Wanting to learn how the organization transferred its historic culture to newcomers I asked, “How are the mission, vision, values taught to new hires?”

The manager I was walking with did a short skip-step and slowed his pace by half. His light banter became serious as he pulled a note card from his shirt pocket. “We get this card on day one and we’re always supposed to have it with us.” He handed me the card.

The card was slightly smaller than 3” X 5” pocket note cards used in the US. But, unfolding it revealed 9” X 5” of content on both sides in 9 pt. font.

There was the Mission, Vision, Values in all its unmemorable length and detailed density.

“Do people know and memorize this?”, I asked incredulously.

“No one I know does,” he said, “but we’re supposed to carry it with us at all time.”

His tone left me feeling as though I had popped the balloons at a birthday party.

In the years since that once great icon of tech culture has lost its way and is no longer viewed as an icon of innovation and engineering. The culture was already muddy at the time of my visit. No longer was it a culture that every engineer in the world admired.

A couple of years after this visit, a CEO was hired who was intensely disliked by every engineer I talked with. For all her bluster, bragging, and blaming, she was scorned by the press, and the managers and engineers I knew. Divisions were sold off, she was replaced, and the once heroic organization became a small part of its original self. The vision and values were lost. Personally she has become an icon of poor leadership.

Are Value Statements Important?

Value Statements are only important if the organization lives by them. Compare the stock value, brand worth, and employee morale of organizations like Enron and Wells Fargo & Co. to that of organizations like Disney, Apple, and Intel.

History shows that organizations that don’t instill and live by clear, fair, and sustainable values are destined to become failures scrambling for their next dollar and making decisions by politics and knife.

Core values are how people behave and act amongst themselves and with their customers. An organization that is aligned with its values has people who act the same at home as at work.

Values are difficult to teach. They are part of our character and are instilled in us during childhood. That means that the best cultures are built by hiring people that already have the values the organization wants to create. A concise, well-understood value statement can help guide who is hired as well as give clarity in which strategy and tactics fit the corporate culture.

In his blog, Aligning Actions and Values, Jim Collins writes that many organizations such as Hewlett-Packard, 3M, Johnson & Johnson did not have a Vision Statement when they started. They did have a set of core values upon which they built the company. Those core values moved the company forward in alignment until a clear vision evolved. For example, 3M’s core values, “sponsoring innovation, protecting the creative individual, solving problems in a way that makes people’s lives better” gave leadership a clear direction and framework that made it easier to define their vision.

Executives and managers should live, behave, and act as examples of the value and culture they want to instill.

Some leaders and consultants say Value Statements are pointless. They believe values evolve situationally. However, there are far too many examples of organizations where these “situational values” killed the organization and stained innocent employees.

Leaders and managers who live by situationally-driven values can drive an organization to ruin. A good example is the action of some Wells Fargo & Co. executives. Wells Fargo is a large west coast banking chain. Senior and regional executives coerced retail accounts managers to meet unrealistic goals by opening fake accounts under real customer names. Those customers were then charged bogus fees. Even after the highest level executives discovered the unethical and illegal behavior they continued to endorse and reward the behavior for over ten years. At this point, more than 5,300 employees and a few executives have lost their jobs due to this incident. Not only is the Wells Fargo Bank brand stained, innocent employees now carry that stain as they try to move to other careers and industries.

I’ve frequently experienced companies in high-tech software selling the promise of amazing results. However, the advanced software features that produce the “amazing results” are filled with unresolved bugs. Executives put resources elsewhere and continue selling the buggy software using the same excuse we heard in high school, “Everyone else does it.” Customers face the choices of using crippled software, paying for expensive custom consulting (repairs), or being bought off with a hushed lawsuit. And these software executives continue to look for short-term quarterly growth while facing a continuous drain of high-performance employees who have become demotivated.

Do core values matter?

Click here to read how to create a Core Value Statement for your organization.

Click here for a few tips on aligning behaviors and actions with Core Values.