Team Building/Tuning Blog

Navigating Vision, Culture, and Values

I’ve read, seen, and heard a lot about Culture in the last few weeks. Before that there was a lot of talk about Vision, and at different points in time a lot of talk about Values. To me, these are all important parts of what make up your business environment. What I have yet to see is anyone combine the three and talk about how they work together. Unfortunately, all of them have become business buzzwords at some point, and we begin to lose out on the rich potential that the principles of vision, culture, and value can bring to your organization. It doesn’t do much good to come up with a vision, hang it on a plaque in your lobby and then forget about it in your daily work. It’s the same with defining your value and culture. If you just write it down and neglect to make it an integral part of your day-to-day business, you might as well not waste the time.

This is the problem that most businesses run into – once you have defined vision, culture, and values, you have to implement them. It’s easy to let go of these ideals when you get into emergency situations or when the pressure is on to get something accomplished, but if they become part of your business DNA, you will default to them. We all know that in theory we want to “Rise to the occasion”, but in truth we most often will sink to the level of our training. It’s the same way in business. We will default to the level that we train our staff to. If vision, culture, and values are not ingrained in the business, then people will default to whatever they most often do anyway. Even though we may talk about having an open culture, if we don’t really practice it, then we will really close up when some sort of emergency or tough situation arises. In doing so we miss out on the support our staff could really give us.

With that in mind let’s talk about those three elements.

Vision –

So much has been written about vision that it can seem a little redundant to write more about it, but much of what has been written has been impractical or even incomprehensible. Also, the fact is that many companies only create a vision statement and then it turns into nothing more than a blurb on their website. Vision should not just be a motivational statement – it should really go into defining who you are as a company. When you consider what the next step for you company is, it needs to be run through the filter of your vision. Everyone from your C-Suite executives to your mailroom worker in the basement should know and understand what your company vision is.

In order to adequately discuss vision, we should define the context and what we mean when we say vision. While dictionary definitions cover mostly the physical aspects or spiritual experiences, when it comes to a business or organization of any sort, having a vision really is a matter of setting a direction for your future. That may sound similar to goals, but a vision encompasses far more than just your goals. It defines the tenor and focus of your company or team. It is a combination of your goals, your direction, and your aspirations.

Where do you see your company or team in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, when you’ve retired and handed the reigns to someone else? This is the quintessential idea of creating a vision. It’s ok to dream really, really big, and make that your vision. Take some time and think about where you want to take your organization. What does it look like in the time frames mentioned? Write it down, and be as descriptive as you would like. When you’re done, condense it down to a short statement that will define what your focus is going to be. Your vision should really outlast you if you do this right. You must realize that at some point in time you will no longer be leading this organization. If you create, define, and implement your vision well, it will be carried along by your successors.

Let me say this about vision and goals. Your vision should be your more long-term ideas of where you want to go. Your goals are how you get there. If you want your product or service to capture 75% of the marketplace, that’s great. Your goals then become the roadmap if you make your vision a reality.

In reality, your vision should encompass more than just your business life. Does your vision align with your personal goals? Do your personal goals align with your company or organizational goals? These are important questions to ask. Many people think it’s possible to separate their personal life from their business life, but the reality is that they always bleed over. Your business life affects all of your relationships and personal aspirations. Conversely, your personal life will affect your business life.

A few things to consider for your vision:

  • 1. Your vision should be just specific enough that everyone can clearly understand and live by it. “Be the best eCommerce marketplace” for example, is going to be too general. Remember that part of the function of having a vision is to give everyone a direction to focus on. “Provide customers in the retail auto parts industry a world class online shopping experience” would give your team a more focused idea.
  • 2. Define your vision by the problem you are trying to solve. At the very root of every business is the idea that there is a problem that needs solving. Even if the business is started because no one else in that segment of the market is doing a good job for their customers, you are still attempting to solve a problem. When everyone clearly understands the problem you are trying to solve, they can more easily jump on board.
  • 3. Your vision should be focused on who or what your organization will serve, not on mere financial pictures. Having monetary goals is great, but if you make it the sole focus of your organization you will put yourself in a place where your values and integrity can more easily be compromised. If you make your vision to serve your customers well or to create a superior product, and you execute well on that, then the financial pictures will flow from that. I have seen many a company face unnecessary difficulties because the executives at the top have been only focused on financial goals. It causes them to make decisions that demotivate their workforce and lose key tribal knowledge. This leads to a downward spiral of constant workforce reductions, poor employee morale, high turnover, even more need for reductions, etc, etc. I’m not saying that it’s never necessary to engage in layoff’s or cost cutting measures, but it should certainly be motivated by more than just getting the profit margins to a required level.
  • 4. Your vision should be no longer than a very short paragraph. If your vision statement is the size of the typical law passed by Congress, then you need to trim it down – a lot! A short paragraph should be sufficient. The idea is to give everyone a place where your company is aiming. If it takes weeks of memorizing to get the vision down, you need to rethink your vision.
  • 5. You set the vision and then you live by it. If you have one rule for your employees and another rule for yourself, then you will not be successful in implementing a vision. When you consider the direction of the company, keep the vision as the guidepost for where you want to be aiming.

Culture –

Your business culture is important. It defines the personality of your business. The personality of your business is one of the key factors you need to be looking at when hiring new employees. The thing about culture is that it can often be subject to business trends. For example, it seems to me that the trendy topic in tech business is to be more like a start-up. This makes sense to some degree because start-up culture fosters a high degree of creativity and problem solving. This is, of course, necessary to the vision and goals of the start-up, but does start-up culture work for everyone? Not really. There are employees and companies where start-up culture will actually prevent them from accomplishing what they want and need to accomplish.

Let me give you an example of different business cultures and some advantages/disadvantages of each:

  • Google is probably one of the best-known business cultures. From very cool office space design to major amenities such as cafeterias, on-site day care, etc, etc, Google has managed to maintain that hip, start-up culture from day one. With that, Google also happens to attract super smart people. So if you want to work with some of the best and brightest, Google is a place you want to check out. Here’s the downside. Your typical Googler works an insane amount of hours. Their entire social structure appears to orbit around the Google campus. Some people like this sort of culture.
  • On the other hand, I have worked with a start-up before that didn’t have a cool campus, there was no on-site day care, no cafeteria, but I loved the work I was doing and the team I worked with. Sure, I sat at a desk that must have been manufactured in 1967 and only had half a cubicle wall (as in a 4 foot section that I believe was wedged between two desks), but I was able to do great work and have a lot of fun doing it. There was an open, transparent communication environment that lent itself very well to contributing to employee success, but it certainly wasn’t Google, and when I left for the day it wasn’t 12 hours after I had made my trek into the office. If I worked more than 10 hours two days in a row, people started to get concerned that I would burn out, except for the rare occasion where we all needed to pitch in and get a last minute task accomplished.
  • While the idea of a “Start-Up” culture seems very hip and cool, the fact is that for some people this type of culture is almost toxic. I have known of situations where an employee joined a start-up and struggled greatly with the culture. Not having the constant processes as guiderails caused them to struggle with performance. When they got back into the more old-school culture, they really thrived. It is good to recognize that your culture is not going to fit with everyone. There are, however, highly talented people that will fit well into your particular culture. Work on finding them.

Another important point to realize is that your culture is going to change over time. This too is ok. Large companies like Dell and HP may have had a more marked “Start-up” feel to them in the beginning, but now they don’t – and a lot of that is due to necessity. A good leader can recognize the need for those changes and help successfully guide his organization through them without destroying what they have been building.

The real point of your business culture is to recognize who you are and accept it. You don’t have to be what everyone else is. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain ideas of features of another business culture that won’t work for you, but implement them for your own context. You may want to set an environment where people put in their eight hours and go home, or you may want to have people who are so involved in your company that they live and breathe it. There are good people who will fit in either paradigm, so embrace what works best for you.

Here are some tips on creating and/or updating your culture:

  • 1. As has already been mentioned, be comfortable with your own business culture. Don’t try to change to a start-up culture just because it’s trendy. Take the best ideas starting with the simplest ones first. You should know your culture better than anyone, but…….
  • 2. Be willing to look at other business cultures for ideas that might enhance yours. Maybe the way to improve your employee’s engagement is the simple addition of a ping-pong table in the breakroom, or maybe it’s providing a free breakfast once a month. In my experience, people are more responsive to sincere attempts to improve things than they are to doing everything perfectly the first time.
  • 3. Make small changes and communicate them ahead of time. If the employees come back from a three-day weekend and the once drab office is now painted in bright colors, the furniture is all ultra-modern open office, and you’re sitting on a Harley instead of in your office with the door closed, you will create a very large sense of being unsettled. Put together your goal and vision of what you want the culture to look like and then make a plan for taking it there in bite-sized chunks. Communicate this to everyone so that there are few surprises.
  • 4. Get feedback from your team on the direction they would like to head. If most of the team doesn’t care about having all of the newest and fanciest perks, then you will probably be working against yourself by trying to implement them. Set vision and direction, but make sure that it’s a place that your team is willing to go with you.
  • 5. When you commit to making a change, follow through. And if You discover a valid reason for not following through, then humbly and clearly communicate that information. I was in a situation where a new CEO told a team she was going to do something when she first came on board, and she never followed through. From then on, no one on that team would believe her when she said anything. The realities of business are that you cannot predict what will happen, and sometimes you will not be able to follow through. A simple email with a humble apology will go a long way toward giving your team the ability to trust you. If at all possible, however, you should follow through, even if it means making some sacrifices.

Values –

While vision sets your direction and culture sets your personality, your values define how you work. Your values are one of the most critical pieces of your business. Unfortunately, many companies have a written list of values that are simply that – a written list, not a code to live and work by. Many others don’t even have a defined set of values. At some point, you need to very clearly define what your values are as a company. It’s what your people will default to in crisis.

It is fairly common now to express values as “Best Practices”. Let me encourage, exhort, plead, beg you not to go down that route. A practice and a value are vastly different. A practice is a way that something is done, while a value is an expression of which direction has more weight. I see so many companies touting their “Best Practices”, but as I have had the opportunity to dig into some of them I have found that this concept tends to breed mediocrity. There is a very distinctive and good reason for that – if a practice is “Best” that implies that you can never improve on it. It also forgets the idea of context. A good practice to use while developing the next hit mobile game may be utterly useless, not to mention illegal, to use while developing critical medical equipment. On top of that, what practices were highly valuable and worked well a few years ago may not work so well now. Context is extremely important to adapting practices, but values are cross-context applicable. If my business value is to provide customers a great shopping experience, then my practices can and should change over time to reflect lessons learned, staff changes, market changes, etc. If I hold to the idea of Best Practices then most likely I will be doing the same practices that I set in place years ago, regardless of whether they are now a good way of doing things or not.

OK, I will now climb down off my soapbox.

Values need to have some level of specificity. For example, saying that our values are “Honesty, Integrity, and Openness” is great. These are principles that every company should value. Using values that people will refer to needs to be phrased with a little more detail. If your stated values are not specific enough, then it becomes very easy for people to see them as merely an empty slogan. Putting some specificity to your values gives your team or company something worthwhile to use in their daily work life.

While there are a plethora of ways to articulate your values, I typically recommend that people create a values statement as a series of “we value x over y” statements. Here’s an example of that from one of my previous teams:

  • We value conversation over meetings
  • We value real results over metrics
  • We value doing what works over engaging in ”fads”
  • We value teamwork over finding “the Rockstar”
  • We value asking hard questions over accepting the status quo
  • We value people over processes
  • We value relationship over hierarchy
  • We value evaluating all practices over clinging to “best” practices
  • We value “try it and see if it works” over “the way we’ve always done things”
  • We value learning and improvement over comfortable complacency

Your company or team values may be a bit different, but I recommend a similar format. The fact is that you know your team, your culture, and your vision, so make it be something that everyone can and will use.

Putting it all together -

I often see Vision, Culture, and Values handled as separate statements, but I believe that there is more benefit to be had in seeing them as a cooperative body of concepts that will work together to drive your team or company to success. Imagine it this way:

Your vision should set your culture and define your values. Your culture pushes your vision and enforces your values. Your values guide your vision and enhances your culture. When you begin to work with all three of these concepts as an integrated process, you will begin to see your team or company use these not just as fancy slogans, but as guideposts for how they work.

Let me just say that the idea of creating, defining, and communicating your Vision, Culture, and Values works for just about every organization I can think of. Whether you have a large, multinational, publicly held corporation or a two-person startup, these principles will help you work. It’s easier to implement, of course, when you are at the beginning, but even the largest corporation could implement these principles and reap great benefits. I mentioned before the intersection of personal and business life. I do believe that all of these principles can also apply to your personal life. In fact, it’s my belief that these principles are best applied first in your own life, and then they will flow into how you lead your organization. Here’s the crux of the matter, Live Life Intentionally. So many people and businesses just exist. That’s fine for short periods of time, but unintentional living leads to unintentional consequences. Find your vision and purpose and then set about intentionally to make it happen.

Setting vision, culture, and values is a lot of work, and it starts with the leaders, but the rewards for doing this hard work at the beginning will pay big dividends in the end. Imagine working with a company where your philosophy on how you do business and meet your customer needs is part of the DNA, and everyone from the newest employee to the one who’s been with you the longest will make decisions that are in line with the vision, culture and values that you set. This is what happens when you begin to actually implement these concepts together.

Having said all that, it is sometimes difficult to be able to see through the circumstances you are in to define and set your Vision, Culture, and Values. In this case, I recommend you get some outside help. You would be amazed at how much having a fresh set of eyes on a perplexing problem can help you find the right answers. There are many great consultants you can find who will help you, so if you need help, ask for it. Among those consultants, we at HillCity Technologies really love helping companies “Find their way forward”. Give us a call and we’ll be happy to sit down with you and talk through the issues you are facing.

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