Springtime reminds me of fruit trees and the power of values-driven companies – or more accurately – the cost of NOT being one.
Small companies often think they don’t need to bother with things like mission and values – that those are things for large companies. Big mistake.
It’s why our tree service company lost our business.
They were very nice people, dependable and a good price. But they did not communicate guiding values to their employees, and one of them endangered my son’s health. That was a show-stopper.
Here’s what happened.
One lovely spring afternoon, one of the technicians stopped by unexpectedly to spray our fruit trees. The contact allowed them to come without calling first, which normally would not be a problem.
However, this particular day, my teenage son was mowing the lawn, and I was not home. The sprayer set up and went to work while my son was mowing.
The first thing I saw as I drove up my driveway, returning from work, was a cloud of spray being carried by the wind the directly toward my son who was working his way across the other side of the lawn.
Horrified, I jumped out of my car and ran to the man who was spraying.
“Watch out!” I yelled as I ran toward him. “Your spray is blowing on that boy!”
He stopped spraying as I approached him and smiled at me patiently. “I know,” he replied in a reassuring voice. “I asked him, and he said he didn’t mind.”
The boy didn’t mind. But his mother sure did!
Who did I hold responsible? The tree service company. It’s their job to set standards for their employees.
What was the problem? Lack of clear company values.
Values are guiding principles that provide broad guidelines on how to behave on a day-to-day basis. And because the company hadn’t articulated clear values, their employees were left to their own devices to determine which values should guide them.
The very nice gentleman spraying my son with chemicals was guided by a value of courtesy. He had quite nicely asked my son whether he minded, and he was as nice as could be when he explained to me that there was no problem.
It was a business imperative …and they failed.
If my tree service company had articulated a value around environmental safety, the sprayer certainly wouldn’t have sprayed while the wind carried the mist onto a young man who was mowing the lawn. Moreso, he might have knocked on my door when he arrived and suggested that I shut my windows. And he might have noticed there were children’s toys in the yard and moved them before he sprayed.
Did I complain to the company? I explained to them why I was quitting them, but I did not care about their excuses. My concern was that if this employee was clueless about guiding values, other employees would also be. And who knows what mistakes the next employee might make.
We hear a lot about the importance of values for large companies, but small companies need clear values, too. If this company had identified and clearly communicated their values, they wouldn’t have lost me as a customer (or the neighbors I told this story to).
Tips to identify your values.
- Choose the values needed to support the purpose of your team or company. For example, a news service would need values like fast and accurate to support their purpose. A theme park would need values like safety and fun. An accounting service would need values like error-free and reliable.
- Don’t assume that any values are understood. If a value like ethics or integrity is important, it needs to be listed.
- Identify the top 3 to 5 key values. It’s too difficult to remember a laundry list.
- Describe values in terms of behavior – a single word can mean different things to different people.
- Involve employees in identifying the values. They will understand them better and will have greater commitment to them.
- Keep your values alive. Put processes in place to get feedback on whether they are being lived. As a leader, model the values consistently. People watch what you do more closely than they listen to what you say.
We found that the biggest obstacle to accepting and understanding our values was for the employees to understand WHY we went to the trouble of coming up with them. If you can get buy-in at the very beginning, even before you put pen to paper, folks are much more likely to espouse them. Also, we found that our values are like the wallpaper for our daily operations: we don’t glide along saying them like a mantra or hit people over the head with them. They only come into sharp relief at pivotal moments in the life of the agency, like promotions, retirements, funerals. That’s when people see the values and are proud to be a part of this organization. WE also whittled down the list from 13 to 6. Makes it easier to breathe!
You remind me that “small companies” includes fire departments, police departments, schools, and non-profits. Excellent points, especially about helping people see the value of identifying values at the beginning. Love your analogy that “values are like the wallpaper for our daily operations.” Thanks for deepening the meaning and intent of this post, Dave.
Bravo for the story selection in relation to the topic. You made your point very clear that such small companies need to have values that guide them to serve their customers.
Thanks for the enlightenment.
Thanks, Khalid. So glad you found it helpful.
Great story, Jesse. And it’s the kind of story that will really get the point across – even to small nonprofits who are so consumed by providing service to disadvantaged people, that they can’t ever find the time to talk about values.
Thanks for raising this, Betsy. Non-profit leaders often assume their values are implicit and that they don’t need to be articulated. But their values determine how they deliver services, how they treat employees and how they coordinate with other agencies and stakeholders and makes a big difference in their effectiveness in fulfilling their mission.
Very true. A company mission and values can help clarify actions needed at the moments when decision needs to be made. It would serve as a guideline and replace the rule book that has every possible scenario and response covered.
I think a company can simply fire the technician and say that he should have known better. A better company would have recognized that they did not provide enough training, understand that their brand is on display through these technicians, and that the company should take time to understand who they are as a company and onboard new employees with company values training.
Excellent point, George. When your mission and values are clear, you don’t need a lot of detailed rules. You can trust that people will make their own decisions and take action in ways that are aligned. There is more freedom, better decisions and a more energized work environment.