What about those company values ?


Couple of days ago, I had a nice long chat with an old friend who worked with me more than ten years ago. One of the topics that came up in the conversation was how some companies don’t seem to have a set of core values to guide the actions of their employees. It is not as if such companies don’t have a defined value system – the problem is that employees don’t seem follow it. They just end up as slogans on a wall or a website or a T shirt.

When I joined IBM many years ago – it was drilled into me that there are three things that will guide me through my time there

1. Dedication to every client’s success

2. Innovation that matters – for our company, and for the world

3. Trust and personal responsibility in all relationships

In its abstract sense, this did not mean much at all to me. It took a few years and a lot of conversations with others living this value system that I figured what it really meant. I also learned through the process that having slogans mean very little unless someone takes time to explain and reinforce it with employees. There were plenty of other colleagues who did not have the chance to hear their leaders explain this to them with real life examples, and consequently never gave it a second thought.

Here are some of the nuances I learned over time that might be useful to others. I don’t think they are specific to IBM – it should work for many, if not all companies. But then again – my views are skewed for my experience. Take it with a grain – or a pound – of salt 🙂

Client vs Customer

The first time I was allowed to lead a sales pursuit independently, Dave Lubowe, the partner who managed the account, told me on the way to the meeting “Vijay, I need you to know that we don’t have customers. We only have clients”. I asked him if it was just a difference in semantics , and he told me that it was not. He explained that “customer” implied that we are in the midst of a transaction – something that is very short term, and we will probably not have to worry about this person or company a whole lot later. Whereas a client is someone who we serve for a very long time, and for whom we try to be a trusted adviser.

I got the rough idea from that snippet of conversation, but it took me many more years to understand fully why it is such an important distinction. It takes a lot of time to win someone’s confidence and it takes very little lose it. And without building that relationship, meaningful business does not happen at all. As everyone figures out eventually, it is easier to keep a client than win a new one – there is a quantitative reason for this. But even more important is the qualitative reason. I have not had a client who has not vouched for me as a reference with another client or prospect . In fact many of them have volunteered to be my reference when I switched employers. They know I will do the same for them – but neither I nor them expect any commercial favors from each other when we do business. We just know that we will be transparent with each other and that it will pay off for both sides over time.

Some innovations matter, and most don’t

While I am a big proponent of the concept of innovation, I am not a big fan of the word “innovation” any more. Due to its over use, I visibly cringe and occasionally completely tune out when people talk to me about innovation. Many of you might know that I am dead opposed to vendors describing their work as “innovation” . I use the word vendor only in a loose sense – to mean people building and selling it. It might be the IT department in a company building something for the finance people.

The sole judge of innovation is the people using it. When a client says it is innovative – then the vendor can advertise it as innovative. Till then it is just “potentially” innovative – and I would rather not see it being mentioned. Everything a vendor does should ideally be innovative in some degree – so harping on it is like me saying in every conversation that “did you know I was breathing throughout the day”. It is implied – and when you explicitly make a big deal out of it at every turn , it stops being authentic. Of course that is just my personal view of the world. I do respect the fact that others might view it differently and act according to their convictions. I have no problems with that at all.

Lets say we are in fact trying really hard to be innovative – building something potentially innovative. How do we go about it? Do we light as many fires(technical term being POC – as in Proof of Concept)  as we can in the name of failing fast ?  Do we designate some teams as “innovation teams” ? Do we let such teams run around crazy defying good and bad processes in the name of innovation? When do we stop and course correct ? or can motion be taken as the KPI for progress?

My point is – failing fast is good only if we fail responsibly. To begin with, lighting random fires in the hope of one or two catching on is seldom a scalable way to let innovation happen. Hope is not a strategy. It just spreads everyone thin. By failing responsibly, we should do micro and macro corrections along the way of each fire we light. Put out the ones that don’t belong using objective criteria and join forces with the ones that seem to show potential. And if there is no customer in the “innovation process” – just stop it at that point. At a minimum, everyone owes it to others to make sure that innovation in a company does not result in massive chaos. Some chaos is unavoidable, and some glass needs to be broken – but when it crosses over into massive chaos – its time to take a breath and realign.

Trust comes with the ability to question

The hallmark of a good team is a culture of trust and loyalty. However, it is easy to misinterpret what this means in day to day life. If the team members are not allowed to provide input in making a decision, then it is hard to expect them to trust the leader in the direction they have to take. And when they feel the team is losing direction – they should feel comfortable questioning the leaders. Goes without saying that this should happen with respect in both directions.

We are all unique, like every one else 🙂 

Thomas Watson apparently had “Respect for the individual”  as a core value for IBM in the past, and then at some point it didn’t make its way to the current three core values of IBM. I was told by an old time IBMer that the rationale was that respect for the individual was implied in everything else and hence did not need to be explicitly mentioned. In my opinion – this should have remained as an explicit value statement. Not only for IBM – but for every company.

The lowest unit in a team is the individual. There is of course the politically correct thing of ” there is no I in TEAM”. What we should not forget is that teams are a point in time concept. We are all individuals with things that make us unique.  When individuals do not get respect and dignity, it is hard for them to be a productive member of the team.

I had a recent conversation with a dear friend on the issue of titles at work. There are many managers who coach their employees to not chase fancy titles. What senior managers don’t always realize is that unlike them who already have the title and hence don’t worry about it as much, the employee is a few steps removed and hence genuinely worries whether the company cares for the individual. Not everyone is capable of the higher responsibilities, and maybe they are ready to take on the bigger responsibility but there is no business justification at that point in time. Most people are reasonable and if you explain clearly what the situation it, they will get it.

When I was in my early career stage – I used to hate managers telling me “just keep doing what you are doing and you will do great”. I always thought that was a cop out. Doing the same thing over and over just makes you good at what you do today – how exactly does it makes you ready for next level is not clear in such a response. Managers owe it to their employees to show a clear path on what is needed for them to progress. If they cannot do that – they owe it to their employees to tell them why they cannot help, and hence it is better for the employee to work for another manager or even another company.

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One thought on “What about those company values ?

  1. Couldn’t agree more. A key element is “respect” – often missing in how team members are treated. Many so-called managers are often just very efficient spreadsheet jockeys. Being higher in the hierarchy they should take the first step to understanding what makes a team member (yes, team member, not “resource” or “FTE” or “headcount”) tick. Important to set the tone so Trust & Responsibility follow naturally, facilitating innovation that matters!

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