The Power of Values of Intentional Leaders

Second in a three-part series

by Brian Stinson

“Don’t confuse motion with progress.”

In his article, “The Power of Values for Aligning an Organization with Intention” Cal Stevens explained how a set of organizational core values end up guiding and accelerating the output of an organization. In contrast, organizations that do not take the time to codify their culture in the form of values and norms often struggle to achieve lasting success.

It made me think of the phrase “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”   I can think of many companies that lost their way due to a focus on doing things that they could (due to ability, resources, time, budget, et al), but that they should not have. But how do we differentiate between “could” and “should”?  It is one of my firmly held beliefs that the answer to “could versus should” can consistently be derived from organizational values. Whether for-profit, or not-for-profit, ALL organizations are established to get stuff done. The key differentiator are organizations who can get sh*t done effectively at scale.  This can only happen when there is tight alignment around a core set of values and beliefs. 

What kind of a leader are you? Do you prefer to spend more of your time leading than managing? 

If you’re still reading, then it’s likely you’re someone who thinks about success from a long-term perspective.  I suspect you either identify as a servant leader or someone who prefers to be part of an organization led by one.  You are someone with a deep understanding that while it is necessary to have smart and capable employees who can produce results, but not sufficient.  You understand that success is also dependent on consistency, cohesion, and collaboration.  This is where we begin to see the true power of values in aligning an organization.  This isn’t about processes and procedures that specify how-we-do-what-we-do, but rather, creating alignment about the core beliefs of the organization.  In fact, if every member of your organization is aligned around a core set of beliefs, then the ‘exactly how we do stuff here’ becomes less important. Interpersonal conflict begins to fade, team cohesion increases, and suddenly everybody is rowing in the same direction and with the same cadence. 

If you’re wondering “What does it take to create that kind of ‘how’ alignment for my organization?” then consider reading our article “What are organizational values and how to create them”.

“We have the best test scores in the state, but I’m bad at hiring.”

What does the payoff of this investment look like?  I’d like to offer a specific example from a past client. I was hired by a school principal to help improve her hiring practices.  When I first met her, she gave me a tour of the school.  This school had been ‘reimagined’ after years of declining enrollment and had been transformed into a Gifted Academy – designed to best meet the needs of students who were wired a little different than the general population.  This principal explained that she kept hiring highly credentialed gifted educators, but more often than not, they would leave after a year or two.  As we began to look at the culture of the school, a two key observations emerged:   First, the school was founded on a premise of “Imagine the possibility” – instead of tight adherence to standard curriculum and practices, the staff (and eventually the students) were encourage to figure out how things worked by breaking them first (metaphorically of course).  Second, each grade level had open classrooms and used team teaching.  These foundational beliefs formed the basis of their core values.  In hindsight, the principal realized she had been guilty of hiring teachers solely based on skills and experience and not for ‘fit’.  We now believe that those highly credentialed teachers who left prematurely possessed value sets aligned to adhering to standards and doing so within the confines of their own room.  Going forward, the hiring process was modified to determine ‘good enough’ skills with scrutiny of how well they fit the school (aka had values alignment). (I can continue down this path by citing awards/recognitions, standardized testing ranking in the state, as well as the expansion of the model to a second school in the district).

Granted, there was more to the success of this school than just writing down a set of values and behaviors….and I admit that the impact of establishing core values isn’t always as dramatic.  However, there is one consistent benefit of aligning the organization around a set of values:  navigating change. Today, change is not only inevitable, but it’s happening more often.  Every time an organization experiences change, there is a period of reforming/realignment.  Organizations with a strong and clear set of values are able to more quickly return to high performance.  While those without this type of ‘cultural scaffolding’ are more likely to get stuck in some sort of organizational ‘doom loop’.