UPFRONT Work – a great place to grow

It’s notion that lot of hardcore business folk may gag on – but organisations out to attract top young talent should be promoting their workplace as the “greatest personal development programme ever”, according to values consultant Michael Henderson.
“There’s been real movement in the past few years around creating great place to work but we’re saying that even that’s bit out of date. ‘Work’ can have bit of negative connotation, but when you talk about growth opportunities, learning, development – that’s what excites people. The whole concept of personal growth for Australians and Kiwis at the moment is huge.”
Henderson, who is co-author of the just published Learning through Values: Linking company culture to business strategy* is no stranger to the gag reflex. When he first started talking to company executives about the importance of values to productive work culture several years back, his message often fell on cynical ears. It probably didn’t help that he was based on Waiheke Island, says Henderson wryly. He could more readily be dismissed as nutter.
Now he doesn’t have to push the values message at all – instead he gets invited in to explain what he’s on about and can claim growing band of high profile clients on both sides of the Tasman who are happy to claim that their organisations are values driven.
“What’s interesting is that the people who used to be our arch enemies – the chief financial officers – are now the ones who are suggesting their organisations look at this because it’s something that shows up in accounts,” says Henderson.
“They can’t track or measure it but they know there are hidden costs that have to do with staff morale and talent retention. While staff turnover and recruitment costs are aspects you can put figure on, they’re also talking about ‘internal theft’ – of time, energy, ideas, about productivity stolen from the organisation because of cultural influence.”
This change of heart is sign of changing times. Companies are having to deal with increasing organisational complexity, skill shortages, generation that has more work choices than ever before and working population that is increasingly driven by desire for personal fulfilment and need to find meaning in their lives.
“We do literally thousands of personal value inventories year and the values that show up as important in Australia and New Zealand – and this has held true for the past five years now – are values to do with personal fulfilment and meaning. While it sounds corny, this gets into quite philosophical area in terms of querying what is the meaning of work, what is the meaning of my life, where am I headed?”
Too often the emphasis for organisational leaders has been on ensuring employees accept the company values – as nutted out by management and enshrined in fancy plaque at reception (his book notes that there was fairly aspirational lot in Enron’s lobby that proved not to reflect the real corporate culture at all).
That’s not how it works, says Henderson whose presentations often include graphic of shop window with notice proclaiming “no values held in these premises overnight”.
“When people go home, so do the values because the employees’ personal values are what they bring to work. I’ve suggested to organisations that even if they go and replace company values tomorrow with another five or six, it would make little difference and go largely un-noticed. But if you go and ask staff to change their personal values, you’d have revolution on your hands.”
So the first step down the values-led track is to help staff clarify their personal values and then look at those in the context of their own work role and relationships. The latest book builds on his first (Values At Work, published 2003) and offers organisations practical programme to implement values-based leadership in three significant ways: supporting the organisation to become leader in its chosen market; more effectively linking company culture to business strategy; and understanding the values framework underlining and guiding specific leadership styles.
There has, he says, been distinct shift in management focus. In simple terms it has evolved from the early 1900s’ “management by instruction”, which had to do with telling labourers how to use tools efficiently, through management by objectives (think missions/goals/KPIs) to more distributed style of leadership.
“Now we’re talking about leading through values which is acknowledging all the intangibles that to large extent have been ignored – things like loyalty or meaning – but that help cut through the growing complexity of our lives. We have to expand what management and leadership means in terms of extending its capacity and capability to cope with the more chaotic nature [of today’s business environment].”
Henderson draws on analogies between culture and physics – where values can be equated to the “strange attractors” or the seemingly invisible forces that attract and energise atomic matter. His own academic background in anthropology has also proved useful in exploring the power of cultural mores in corporate ‘tribes’.
And those who most influence culture aren’t necessarily those who have the titles and authority.
“What managers think the company values are and what they really are usually turn out to be two different things and one has lot of power while the other is almost nonsense.”
Which is why it’s going to become increasingly important to suss out the values fit of staff at recruitment time.
“Almost from this point forward I think that will be critical because all the research in this area now suggests that major reason people leave [organisations] or don’t perform in the first place is because they don’t feel like they fit. Obviously it’s not the only thing – you still need the right skills, qualifications, reference checks and experience – but the values fit will become increasingly important.”
(*Leading through Values: Linking company culture to business strategy. Authors: Michael Henderson, Dougal Thompson, Shar Henderson. Published February 2006 by HarperCollins. RRP $35.00)

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