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Truth Lies
Truth Lies
Truth Lies
Truth Lies
Truth Lies

Bumper Sticker Values Will Be the Death of Your Company

Dec. 8, 2022
An organization's real values are manifested by how they act, not how they claim they act.

Many CEOs live in a delusional, fantasy world of what I call “bumper sticker values.” Bumper sticker values that look good on a boardroom wall. Or in an annual report.

My favorite examples of bumper stickers gone wild is always the airlines. Here as an excerpt of United Airlines bumper sticker values: “that includes treating everyone with dignity and respect.”

When is the last time you were treated with dignity and respect on United Airlines? On any airline?

But I bet the CEO of United believes his own bumper sticker values. That is why every time there is a galactic blunder by a flight attendant against a passenger, the CEO jumps to defend the flight attendant-even before he has the facts.

CEOs blindly believing their bumper sticker values destroys companies. Case in point: Wells Fargo

The Wells Fargo debacle is a perfect example of a toxic culture gone wild. Several years ago, in the maddening pursuit of phantom profits, the company directed employees to open over 2 million bogus accounts. Accounts that people never asked for and, in some cases, weren’t even aware had been opened. After this came to light, the CEO got sacked, fined $17.5M and banned from ever working in banking again.

At the time, two of Wells Fargo’s key values were “ethics” and “what’s right for customers.” Huh???? How could a company with those values possibly do what was clearly unethical and wrong for customers? The answer is it couldn’t. Wells Fargo’s values of “ethics” and “what’s right for customers” were only bumper sticker values. The real values beneath the slogans were vastly different.

This is not unusual. There is often a difference between bumper sticker slogans and the real values that lie beneath. Value statements are always warm and fuzzy. But a company’s real values are manifested by how they act, not how they claim they act.

Cultures are formed and maintained by the shared values that lie beneath, not the bumper sticker values. The chances are the Wells Fargo CEO had no idea an underlying set of values existed that were vastly different than the bumper sticker. And because he didn’t know, he couldn’t do anything about it. And then disaster struck.

If you’re a CEO, don’t wait until disaster strikes before you do a values check-up. But don’t have the human resource people ask employees what the company values are. Don’t declare what you think the values are and expect people to behave accordingly. That never works. Here is what you should and shouldn’t do:

Do not make this an exercise for the human resource department. If it is to be taken seriously, it must come right from the top. People need to know that values matter.

Do have an outside professional survey company conduct an anonymous survey and ask every single employee in complete confidence what they think the company values are. You may be astounded by the results.

If the underlying values are different from the bumper sticker, do find out why. What is driving the difference? Chances are you’ll find operating managers are the root cause. Or you might be the root cause. As an example, many operating managers don’t give a hoot about anything other than results. Of course, results matter, but operating managers will care about what the CEO cares about, and what they are incentivized to do.  If they are incentivized for profit no matter what the cost, that is exactly what they will do. Only the CEO can change the incentive structure to make it more balanced with company values. No company can prosper without positive results. But results without appropriate values are often temporary, or in the case of Wells, only illusory.

Do a reality check. Does your company have the “right” values? By that I mean values that serve your employees, customers, community, and shareholders equally. Values that form what I call a “culture by design, not default.” If not, it’s time to change them.

Let’s assume you have the “right” values. Do start at the top and go layer by layer. Those who don’t believe in or demonstrate the values will either have to show they can put in the work to change, or go. This is not easy. But it is essential. If your top managers ignore the values, everyone else will. This is a multi-year process that you must undertake carefully and delicately, otherwise the business will crash and burn. Take it one step at a time, one manager at a time. Once you start replacing managers for values reasons, the whole organization will begin to behave differently. People will applaud you for doing so.

Do not let anybody in the front door that doesn’t fit in with your values. Interview potential new employees with values in mind. Don’t just state the values and ask if they agree. Of course, they will agree; they want the job. Ask them what their values are. Ask them what values they would admire in a company. If their values don’t match with company values, don’t hire them. No matter how good they are. Otherwise, they will be like an infectious disease on the organization.

Do make values a key part of performance evaluation. Don’t make this a check-off-the-box exercise. Make values the standard for promotions and compensation increases. Promote the company values in all employee meetings and recognize and reward your “values heroes.”

Steven L. Blue is President & CEO of rail-parts manufacturer Miller Ingenuity, has published five books that teach senior leaders and CEOs how to increase profit, take market share and destroy competition and serves as CEO-in-Residence at Winona State University.

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