Corporate exhortations

Here's an observation I received last week:

I was walking around someone's office (a consulting company) and noticed an acronym on client service and the related expected behaviors posted on notice boards and TV screens. I asked the employee whom I was with about it. It turned out that he'd never noticed either the acronym or the statements. What struck me was that if I ask someone in my organization what our service acronym is, and means, most people will be able to recite it and will have formed an opinion about the behaviors that evidence we live the service values – I'm pretty certain, everyone will know what the values are and a lot of people really take them to heart.

When I asked another employee in the organization I was visiting about the notice board messaging on client service his response was rather flippant "no-one pays attention to that …". I find this interesting as both employees are on the promotion track and they are highly regarded and respected but neither one of them cares nor places any importance on the exhortations their organization has put out.

I wonder if they are automatically living out the values and service standards of the organization or if what's rewarded by the organization is something different from what they say they want?

Going into a lot of organizations myself I often see company brand values and associated collateral. Sometimes people know them, sometimes they don't, sometimes they live them and sometimes they don't. Whether stating organizational values (and then getting organizational members to live them) is of business benefit seems to be the nub of the question. Alan Mullally, CEO, Ford is of no doubt on that score. An interview with him in Fortune magazine makes this clear:

Are corporate mission statements so 1990s? Not to Mulally. To let everyone know what he had in mind, Mulally created those plastic cards with four goals on one side ("Expected Behaviors") and a revised definition of the company ("One Ford") on the other. To Mulally, it is like sacred text: "This is me. I wrote it. It's what I believe in. You can't make this shit up."

The behaviours fall into four categories, utilizing the word FORD as an acronym for the first word in each category. Foster functional and technical excellence. Own working together. Role Model Ford Values. Deliver Results. Collectively, both sides of the card embody Alan's message of working together as "ONE Ford". Every employee carries this succinct and powerful message with them, attached to their Ford ID badge and poster-sized versions of the card can be found on the walls of every conference room in every country in which Ford operates, translated into each of the local languages. As one employee said "The message is heard and clearly understood – everywhere!"

One person hearing this suggested that "presumably Ford fundamentalists also have it tattooed on both arms and both sets of cheeks" illustrating a commonly held attitude to this type of evangelizing. (Witness the success of the anti-motivational posters, e.g. Teamwork: A few harmless flakes working together can unleash an avalanche of destruction). Explicit proselytizing with public messaging, printed paraphernalia (cups, lanyards, and mousepads) seems to work only if it is part of a more broadly implied way of working i.e. what leaders expect, what they themselves are role modeling, what the organization is rewarding, and how recognition is achieved. It doesn't work if there is no associated or consistent evidence/demonstration of 'this is the way we do things'.

Is the explicit messaging a waste of effort and money? Yes, if it serves to foster cynicism and apathy (Apathy: If We Don't Take Care of the Customers, Maybe They'll Stop Bugging Us.) No, if it serves simply to reinforce a message that is already clear, evident, and being repeatedly rewarded for being lived – as in Ford's case. Overall, however, it may be that a cheaper and more effective route to business success is to make it clear (not through printed messages, but through practices and processes what is expected) and invest the money saved in more useful farkles.

*Farkle: An accessory item that enhances not only the functionality of a motorcycle, but also contributes to the pride in ownership that comes from a motorcycle(!)