By Robert L. Dilenschneider, author of “A Briefing for Leaders: Communication As the Ultimate Exercise of Power“
There are many fine values, such as courtesy, confidence, ingenuity, thrift, and so on. The trouble is that the list of values grows easily and can cause many employees to lose their focus. They fail to prioritize. A “short list” of values is far more useful in putting the workplace back on track.
Moreover, when the core values exceed four or five points, it becomes difficult to communicate and reinforce them. The following are five candidates for the practical values having foremost importance:
I know companies – strong organizations – centered on these values. They are invariably successful. Almost always, these core values generate other values in employees.
But what if all our organizations started with the same short list? Wouldn’t that give American industry, or the industry of any culture, an important leg up?
Integrity is no simple matter. It is particularly easy for business people to lie. I compiled a list of 46 reasons that executives lie. They include:
If I didn’t lie about my loyalty to the firm, they would never have promoted me.
If I hadn’t lied, I would have exposed our firm to an unfair lawsuit.
If the union knew our real profit prospects, they would beat us black-and-blue at the bargaining table.
There seem to be some compelling reasons to lie in certain situations. Although I’ve heard a few plausible defenses of lying, I’m not sure it is ever justified. Once a company starts to condone lying as a matter of course, it is headed for serious trouble. In such businesses, lying becomes a game. And success goes to those who play it best.
In an article titled “Where Lying Was Business as Usual,” Business Week reviewed a book on the Wedtech Scandal, a Washington scandal of the late eighties in which a few government officials fed fat contracts to a dubious supplier. The reviewer Harris Collingwood concludes his piece, saying: “In the end, what’s remarkable about the Wedtech gangsters isn’t that they were crude and thuggish. It’s that among the sharp-elbowed hordes pushing through Washington’s corridors of power, they didn’t even stand out.”
The value of accountability is the willingness to take responsibility for one’s own actions.
Bob Waterman has written a penetrating little book, “Adhocracy“. It narrates an engaging story about accountability in an energy-cogenerating firm called AES. The people in the Beaver Valley, Pennsylvania, AES plant learned what many workers and managers know across the country: They learned who is responsible for the way things run. The answer, of course, is that they are. “They,” however, is not anyone of them, but rather a nameless, faceless force hiding in the organization. These powerful secret terrorists, these mega-gremlins – “they” – are always there to gum up the works. They send the wrong material handling orders. They misprocess the medical claims. They forget to clean and maintain the machinery.
A courageous top manager in this firm, Bob Hemphill – who is a leader, no doubt about it – decided to declare war on “they.” He sent out coffee mugs emblazoned with “Who is they anyway?” He put up posters that read: “Send they a letter.”
With a healthy sense of humor, AES eliminated the rationalization “They make us do it.” It was no longer an acceptable excuse. In a particularly clever step, the workers created a system of organization called the honeycomb structure and organized themselves into families: the turbine family, the coal-pile family, and the scrubber family. Workers were also encouraged to move from family to family to expand their range of skills. In this way, AES was able to make the breakthrough on accountability, as each “family” also provided a framework of values that, in turn, became a basis for improving accountability.
There are scores of individuals who equate diligence with drudgery. Too often, managers demand diligence about the wrong things: filling out forms is one glaring example.
According to Arno Penzias, the head of research at Bell Labs, the mother of one of his teachers at Columbia used to ask her son persistently when he was just a young schoolchild: “Did you ask any good questions today, Isaac?” The question was not what did you learn in school today, but what good questions did you ask. The mother’s priority must have had an impact on Penzias, because he eventually helped institutionalize the practice of asking useful questions at AT&T Ben Labs. Asking tough questions has become a hallmark of AT&T research culture and has helped to establish Bell Laboratories as one of the great creative institutions in America. The best firms are diligent about uncommon things – for example, asking creative questions.
I’m afraid that we lose the value of diligence as a positive force early in life. Too often, schools turn diligence into drudgery. Peter Drucker has pointed out that our educational system is obsessed with people’s weaknesses. Rather than making their powerful writing skills even stronger, children weak in geography waste time on remedial geography with few results. “How do we make our strengths stronger?” is a positive, productive question that we should ask ourselves each day.
Diligence that nurtures strength makes a difference. Indeed, a diligent commitment to improving their already powerful position is what makes the Japanese a formidable competitor in the electronic and automotive industries. Similarly, the Japanese philosophy of perpetual quality improvement is a restless, but positive diligence.
The developers of the ulcer drug at C. D. Searle knew they had something when they invented aspartame. It took years to learn, however, that aspartame was not an ulcer drug but the heart of the revolutionary sugar substitute NutraSweet.
Perseverance presupposes confidence, and few companies can match Xerox for its sense of confidence and determination. Xerox, which pioneered the photocopying business, lost important ground to the Japanese on price. Now, Xerox is reviving its copying business by focusing on the value added by advanced technologies and color copying. Focused leadership over time implies productive, useful perseverance.
In the eighties, “cutting your losses” quickly was fashionable thinking. In the future, companies won’t be able to exit and enter businesses as quickly as in the last decade. The initial costs of entry, especially for marketing, will be prohibitive. Once the massive investment has been made, it becomes increasingly awkward to justify abandoning the business. The vice chairman of the holding company that includes Revlon said in the Wall Street Journal: “[W]e aren’t going to spend $30 million to launch a deodorant.” The minimum stakes can be staggering, and the entry costs for other kinds of products are, in fact, much higher.
Employees must be prepared for prolonged competitive horizons. The battles of entrenched foes, such as Pepsi and Coke, will be more the norm than the exception. Just think: The Cola Wars between Pepsi and Coke have already lasted longer than the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
How little we know about discipline in modern business! Because of our passion to make things simple, we err and also try to make them easy. As the great battlefield strategist von Clausewitz pointed out, the simple and the easy are not synonymous.
AI Neuharth launched Today, the prototype for USA Today, in Florida back in 1966. Two weeks before the first issue, Neuharth reported that his employees “produced complete prototypes of the paper every day – printed them, put them on trucks, dropped them at delivery points to pinpoint timing, then picked them up and burned them at the local dump to keep them out of the hands of the competition.” In my view, USA Today is assured great commercial success in journalism. In no small measure, it stems from the remarkable discipline that went into building the paper.
Discipline does not always imply following orders. Sometimes, it points in the opposite direction. Business Month named MCI one of the five best-managed companies in 1990. The late Bill McCowan, MCI’s former Chairman and CEO, did “his best to ban . . . standard procedures and practices.” He would get up in front of his people and say: “I know that somewhere, someone out there is trying to write up a manual on procedures. Well, one of these days I’m going to find out who you are, and when I do, I’m going to fire you.” For McCowan, I think, discipline meant that individuals are required to think on their feet. They have to solve problems sensibly from the earliest days of their careers.
Obviously, there are many ways to sort and define the five cornerstone values: integrity, accountability, diligence, perseverance, and, discipline. It’s hard to contain the focus to these attributes before other supporting values come into play. Diligence presumes a sense of urgency, for example, because you can’t be just busy; you must be busy in the context of time. Perseverance also requires judgment because no one would ever persist in a patently wrongheaded course. Although they may presume other values, the five cornerstone values are a credible starting point, and, I think, can be considered a priority list of the key workplace values.
In my view, management now has no choice but to teach values. Business leaders in the United States have shunned talking about values, because they seem to suggest a religious or moral outlook. This implication is not necessarily the case. Further, it’s not possible to sustain industrial competitiveness without attention to them. Ask a Japanese CEO to define his primary job, and he’s likely to tell you that his role is to “harmonize” values. It is to help employees to adjust to the ever-shifting structure of priorities and demands. Values are what motivate and sustain behavior over the long run, and this perseverance is something the Japanese understand particularly well.
Copyright © Robert L. Dilenschneider, author of A Briefing for Leaders: Communication As the Ultimate Exercise of Power from which this piece was excerpted.
Robert L. Dilenschneider is the founder and chairman of The Dilenschneider Group, a global public relations and communications consulting firm headquartered in New York City. He is the author of many books, including the best-selling “Power and Influence: The Rules Have Changed“.