October 11, 2009 | Drs. John Foltz & Jay Akridge
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Bringing vision and values to life in your firm

Does your companys vision match your values? How your company acts or reacts when the pressure is on, says a lot about its vision and values, and now is a good time to put both into clearer focus.

Harvest is upon us and in some areas the feed and grain industry is hitting on all cylinders. The middle of what may be the most intense part of the year may seem like an odd time to be thinking about your firm’s vision and values, but that is what we are going to ask you to do in this column. Being in the midst of “doing what you do,” is not a bad time to take a look at the alignment between what your firm’s vision and where you are now. Likewise, when your organization is running flat out, you can take stock as to whether or not your actions are aligned with your beliefs or values.

Think about it: You may have invested some time framing a vision for your organization when you put together that last strategic plan. But in the three to seven years since you went through that planning exercise, does your vision still reflect the realities of today’s and tomorrow’s business environment? Perhaps more importantly, the “busy season” gives you a chance to really assess how you do business and determine if you are living your values. How your firm acts and reacts when the pressure is on says a lot about you.

While notions like vision and values can be really fuzzy ideas, we will make the case in this column that they can also be powerful points of difference for your feed and grain firm. Especially when the vision provides guidance for decisions, brings your stated values to life, and in the process, energizes your employees to rally around your company’s core purpose and beliefs. Let’s start with some discussion of these two fundamentally important ideas.

Vision

Most management texts will define vision as a statement of what the firm wants to become, the difference it wants to make, the basic needs it wants to address, and stated in an aspirational, inspirational and concise way. (We won’t get into hair splitting over the difference between vision statements and mission statements. In our book, mission statements are more reflective of who we are and what we do, while vision statements address what we want to become. We will focus on vision here.) If your firm has been through a strategic planning activity, you likely developed one of these vision statements. Maybe your statement says something like:

  • “We will support a viable livestock industry in our region by becoming the region’s preeminent animal nutrition solution provider through our focus on innovative products, exceptional service and an unsurpassed passion for quality”

Or, it might look something like this:

  • “Our firm will enhance the profitability of growers in our state through exceptional marketing opportunities created by strategically located facilities, creative risk management tools and the lowest cost of doing business in our region.”

There is a lot going on in these kinds of statements. These firms are lifting up why they do what they do, for example “contributing to a viable livestock industry,” and “enhancing the profitability of our growers.” There are also aspirational statements here that are measureable, such as “lowest cost of doing business in region.” In addition, there are aspirational statements that are less easy to measure such as, “unsurpassed passion for quality.” Key elements of firm strategy are embedded as well like “innovative products,” “exceptional service,” etc.

In theory, such statements could serve a lot of purposes like providing guidance when making decisions, serving as a rallying point for employees, defining you for the marketplace, etc. While we know some would disagree, we would argue that a thoughtful vision statement can capture the true essence of a firm and provide a vivid description as to why employees find meaning in the work there.

And, at a time when a feed and grain firm needs every edge in the market, retaining great employees and creating a meaningful work environment is certainly a worthy goal to pursue. Why then do so many managers/firms go through the motions of developing a vision statement, but never really use the statement, rendering it as nothing more than some words on paper, something they did because it is just part of the recipe? Before we answer that question, let’s take a look at the idea of values.

Values

Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in “Building Your Company’s Vision” (Harvard Business Review, 1996) define core values as the “essential and enduring tenets of the organization” and “timeless guiding principles” — the true essence of who you are as a company. Statements of values are not as common as vision statements in our experience, but a well articulated set of company values can be even more powerful in terms of a decision guide and employee motivator. Some examples might be:

  • Quality — we will put our very best into every load of feed leaving our plant. We understand that how well we do our job will affect the profitability of our customers, and they deserve products that are milled to specification, every load done right and delivered in a timely way.
  • Safety — we will never compromise safety in any action we take. We will make sure every employee is trained to do their job safely. Our team members will look out for one another. There is no room for shortcuts in our workplace. The health and well-being of our employees is the most important value we have.
  • Innovation — we will create and cultivate an environment where our employees think outside the box, approach old problems in new ways, and take calculated risks in order to keep us at the forefront of the feed and grain industry through solutions that are always one step ahead of the competition.

Here, we are talking about plain spoken statements that define what you believe in, what is important to you as a firm. In the end, a set of these statements should describe your culture as an organization or at least describe the culture your company aspires to. Perhaps the acid test here would be turning a reporter loose inside your organization and having them describe it in a newspaper story. If these statements truly mean anything, the reporter’s story would play back that your company believes in quality, safety and innovation.

Bringing vision and values to life

Making these statements more than words on paper starts with how you develop them in the first place. If you type such statements up on a Sunday afternoon, then post them in the break room Monday morning, we are confident of the results you will get . . . . pretty much nothing. In our experience, firms that really engage employees in discussions about “what should our firm look like in the future,” “what are the most important things we do,” “what are the principles that we hold most important,” can truly develop high impact statements of vision and values. In most cases, employees are glad to engage in such discussions and feel good about the fact you believe their ideas are important. In such firms, there is ownership and buy-in of the vision, and the values and that ownership and buy-in are very powerful.

Another trademark of firms that are vision and value driven is the fact that these statements actually guide decisions. If you have a value around safety, and the first thing you cut when budgets are tight is safety training, the fact that your walk and your talk are not the same thing is apparent to all. Likewise, in a tight budget situation, if you maintain an investment in the company picnic (finding the funds from somewhere) because family values are important to the firm, that makes an equally powerful statement in support of your values. The point here is authenticity — if you truly live these concepts, it shows, and your employees are likely to follow . . . and live the ideas as well.

Of course, leadership is critical here. In your role as leader, you have the opportunity to continually reinforce your firm’s vision and values. What do you talk about when you have the floor? What behaviors do you acknowledge, support, encourage? In your speeches, informal conversations, newsletters, and training — organizations that believe in this stuff hammer it home all the time.

One of our favorite examples is Medtronic, one of the world’s leading medical technology firms (Academy of Management Executive, 2001). The firm’s former CEO, William George, worked tirelessly to ensure the organization lived its vision of “restoring people to fuller lives by alleviating pain, restoring health and extending life.” Symbols and traditions played an important role in helping all employees fully understand what this vision was all about. One was the mission and medallion ceremony. Here, the CEO met with each new employee, explained the firm’s vision and values, and then presented them with a medallion showing a person getting up from an operating table with the words “toward a full life” inscribed on the medallion. The new employee was encouraged to keep the medallion at his/her desk as a constant reminder of what the firm was all about.

For Medtronic, celebrations were also important. At the annual holiday party, every year six patients were invited to share their stories of healing that Medtronic technology had made possible. For all employees, this was a vivid reminder of the firm’s vision and values. The bottom line: Every employee knew what the firm was aspiring to become, and what was important in the process.

In a real sense, what we do in the feed and grain industry, providing food, feed, fuel and fiber for our world, is just as fundamental as Medtronic’s focus on healing (perhaps even more so). So, the question for the feed and grain manager is how do you 1) help every employee from day 1 understand and embrace your vision and values and 2) how do you vividly remind your team that what they do is important?

Along this line, don’t dismiss simple ways of communicating vision and values and overcomplicate the process. If you have been inclusive and authentic in developing your statements, acronyms, cards, signs, etc. you can play a role in communicating and reminding. At the same time, if, as a manager, you don’t think this option works for you, don’t go down this path. Cutesy sayings, TEAM acronyms, motivational posters, etc. that don’t ring authentic, are simply going to be fodder for jokes around the coffee pot.

Character expression and image positioning

Let’s wind up with some thoughts on how vision and values should be communicated outside the firm. One of our favorite ways of looking at this was put forward by Peter Laundy in an Inc. magazine article some years ago (1993). In the article, Laundy described two kinds of firms — the firm that uses what he calls “image positioning,” and the firm that “expresses character.”

As an illustration, firms pursuing image positioning would decide that great service was important to customers, invest a lot of money advertising how great their service was, then do some surveys to see if customers really thought their service was great.

Firms that express their corporate character work hard to understand what delivering great service truly means, make sure they do all the things inside the firm that it takes to deliver great service (hiring, training, systems, etc.), then actually go about the business of trying to deliver great service to their customers. As the quality of their service gets noticed (expressing their character), the word starts to get around the market that this firm does things right. Only after the firm really does have it right do they start tooting their own horn — if they even need to do this!

You get the point: Vision and values are really internal ideas. In the end, your customers shouldn’t have to read your values on a web-site or on the wall of your rest room — they should be apparent when dealing with your organization. Firms that get their words ahead of their actions are not likely to get the reception they want from their customers as most customers have had it with empty promises.

Takeaway

Yes, it is a busy time. But, winter and annual planning cycles are coming. Take some time this fall to watch how your firm goes about its business.

Revisit and remember your vision statement as the winter meeting cycle cranks up. Give serious thought to engaging your employees in a dialogue about your vision and values.

That dialogue could be the first step for a more engaged, energized set of employees, and a real leg up in your market.

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