February 16, 2009

The Importance of Core Values

Jim Collins and Jerry Porras may have helped popularize the notion of core values in their seminal work, Built to Last, but they were neither the first nor have they been the last to stress their importance.

People often focus on the values aspect without sufficient attention to their modifier: core. Core values are that small set of values meant to endure and never be violated. Since they are at our core, everything else should flow from them. They are to be applied during times that are good, and perhaps more importantly, during tough times when it might be tempting to choose otherwise.

Corporate CEOs have been singing an interesting song and dance about sky-high salaries and annual bonuses the size of some city's budgets as being critical for attracting and retaining top talent. Perhaps. But America has placed executives on the same recruitment track as professional athletes: each individual's deal must be bigger than the preceding one in order to reinforce that person's worth (and ego I'd add).

This should not be a core value: we pay top dollar no matter what. Doing so create a never-ending salary nuclear arms race in which each company must outdo/outbid the other. "Bigger" becomes the core value despite the ridiculous nature of the job package being offered or the lack of ties between pay and performance.

Perhaps it is a phenomenon more unique to America since it plays itself out in other decision-making situations as well: convention centers constantly add on more space in order to match the most recent expansion of their peers, teams threaten local municipalities if they don't provide financial support for bigger arenas with more luxury boxes, etc.

But at some point, corporate board members, civic leaders, and responsible individuals need to draw the line: Not here. Not now. Not on my watch. Though everyone could be bigger, not everyone can be the biggest. And biggest doesn't mean the best.

What we are meant to be is who we say we are: our core values. And that requires the conviction to say no when all around us are saying yes. Doing so is the only sustainable strategy for success. It is a tough lesson we are yet again having to relearn.

1 comment:

joehafner said...

Well written, Jeffrey. Your position that "core values" are (or should be) an outflow of the unchanging "core" is spot on. This is especially applicable to my clients (SOHO business owners and independent workers) because the goal for most is independence, freedom, and control of their destiny. Despite these goals, we all tend to envy the bigger, faster, more innovative, etc. in our chosen career. I tend to think that much of this envy (personally, or corporately i.e. your stadium example) stems from not knowing your core values.

"To thine own self be true..."