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How to Lead With Your Values, Regardless of Industry

Your company's values are the foundation upon which everything else is built, so properly defining them is a critical first step.

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What are your company’s most basic ethical and societal principles? If you can rattle them off without checking your website, well done. Even if you can’t, what matters far more is whether or not you are actually leading with them. But is that even possible to do all of the time? My experience has indicated that the answer is a resounding “Yes”, and I can tell you how.

First principles

The ability to lead with values starts, not surprisingly, when you conceptualize and formalize them. If they are fundamentally aligned with those of your company’s team, then you are in the right place. If not, then you need to ask yourself some deeper questions. Authentic business values aren’t created around what you think people want or the type of place at which you imagine good talent would want to work — they represent the fundamental belief system of the founders, created around what sort of place they want and need to work in every day. In my company, they are respect, flexibility, and commitment. What are yours?

Related: The 8 Values Every Company Should Live By

Build them out, and stick to them

If you truly want to lead by your values, then policies must reflect them. We can’t claim flexibility as a tenet, for example, then force team members to work 9 to 5 in an assigned cubicle, regardless of whether or not that works for their situation. Other businesses may claim honesty as a bedrock principle, and even have policies built to support it, but when an employee has a valid concern to raise, she or he is invalidated or worse, hushed. If you’re serious about leading with values as a guiding star, it will never be inconvenient to apply them.

Rethink the top-down culture

Although business values tend to work best when they’re based upon corollary personal principles, a culture set in them is not going to develop if the attempt is to convert people to your way of thinking. This is not a conditioning exercise; you have to find people who already share the same outlook. That’s how good business environments develop. Rather than taking on the role of culture police, become culture carriers, and there is a fine but definite line separating the two. If policies represent shared company beliefs, then it shouldn’t be difficult.

Related: Building a Successful Company Culture, From the Inside Out

Where I work now, our team ethos is, in part, to find a way to embrace flexibility. Team members notice this, and tend to thrive in it. But the observe also applies; if you have a staff member who is more prone to enforcing arbitrary policies rather than guarding your company’s essential beliefs, it may be time for a change, and it’s critical to not drag your feet in doing so.

Recognize people at all levels

Rewarding guardianship of company values is especially valuable to team members at an executive level, as they often don’t get the same degree of recognition as other employees. And for the rest of the team, just witnessing someone at an executive level be recognized for such contributions can be a game-changer. Suddenly, they see, values aren’t just slogans, but lived-out qualities represented by human beings standing in front of them. Very simply put, it’s positive reinforcement.

Related: Winning Includes Putting People First in Your Business. This is How You Do It.

Avoid the, “My industry is different” excuse

I can hear some of you saying, “But my industry doesn’t work like that.” You’ll say, perhaps, that real estate or healthcare or a certain type of manufacturing is unique, and that these policies won’t work the same there.

They will.

Values are values, no matter what product you’re selling or who you’re selling it to, because it’s about how you conduct yourself in that act, not the act itself.

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