Corporate Values: No Such Thing as “Aspirational Values”

I work with a lot of senior corporate leaders. One of the things I notice is that some of them are a little confused about the concept of corporate values. They often talk about personal and corporate values in the abstract, almost as hypothetical behaviors attitudes, as though their personal and corporate values were some far-off destination they were hoping, someday, to reach. They may say they have values in different categories, one of which is titled “Aspirational.” Actually, accountable leadership lives a consciously chosen, clearly articulated list of values, each and every day.  There is no such thing as an aspirational value.

If it is not happening right now, it is not a value.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. If I am talking to a CEO, and he tells me that one of his corporate values is “supporting the community,” my natural next question is going to be, “Great — how does that show up?”

If he then says something like, “Well, we let employees take a day off every month to do charitable work if they so choose…but so far nobody has asked to do that,” there’s a problem.

If your stated values include supporting the community, that means your choices and actions have to reflect those values, not just once in a while but always. So, if you cannot point to any tangible evidence of your organization’s active support for the community, it is not yet one of your values. You may want it to be. But that is not where you are yet. What you have got now are words in the wind. And that is not enough.

How you define your values is up to you. Whether you bring them to life with action, or leave them as words in the wind, is also up to you. But I will tell you this. Words in the wind demotivate people! It is better not to have any stated values at all than it is pretend to pursue something You are not actually pursuing.

You may have heard of a man by the name of Ed Stack. He is the CEO and chairman of Dick’s Sporting Goods, one of America’s largest sporting goods retailers, with over 30,000 employees working in 850 stores. One of his company’s stated values reads as follows:

We live for our sport, our team and our community.

Continuing with the example I just shared, suppose I were to ask Ed Stack how “living for our community” shows up in his business. What would he say?

As it happens, he would be able to give me a very clear answer. In the aftermath of the massacre at Parkland, Florida, Stack reached out to the victims of mass shootings, and he listened carefully and in person to what they had to say. The Parkland shooter had bought a rifle at a Dick’s Sporting Goods outlet, and even though he had not used that weapon in the attack, Stack realized that his company had become part of a national conversation about gun violence, and he made a point of engaging personally in that conversation.

Based on what he heard, Stack made the decision to stop selling assault-style weapons, and to take other steps to limit firearms sales through his stores — such as removing high-capacity magazines and “bump stocks” from his stores, products that essentially turn semiautomatic weapons into machine guns. In the months since, Stack, a lifelong gun owner and a staunch supporter of constitutional gun rights, has been lobbying Congress for specific reforms in existing gun laws. These steps have made him deeply unpopular in some quarters. Some analysts say that they have also played a role in a marketplace slump Dick’s Sporting Goods has recently encountered.

Ed Stack took those controversial steps because he believed they were right…because they were in alignment with his values and his organization’s values. A few weeks ago, he said to the Washington Post, while discussing his decision to change his company’s policies on firearms sales, “A number of people have said to me that this had to be a really hard decision. It was not.”

That is the sound of a leader, and an organization, with clear corporate values.

It is important to point out here that I do not much care whether you agree or disagree with Stack’s decision. That is not the point. The point I want to land about corporate values has zero to do with gun rights, politics, or the morality of firearm sales. What leaders need to notice is that Stack has taken a position based on what he believes…and he’s doing something about it. Are we willing to take a position based on what we believe, and then make decisions that consistently align with our belief, whether those decisions are popular or not?

If we do not take action then there is no alignment, either individually or organizationally. Taking action on what we say we believe is the “values test” we all face as leaders. Taking action is the only thing that produces alignment and accountability. Otherwise our corporate values are just words in the wind.

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