Leadership and integrity seem to be the business buzzwords of the moment, with no self-respecting businessperson claiming anything less. But look closely at most businesses – especially those under stress – and it’s often the case that leadership has fallen short of the mark and integrity hasn’t picked up the slack. Recent examples from the popular press would include banks putting profits ahead of customers’ livelihoods, or energy companies capitalising on a captive market, but it would be misleading to think that it’s only in these extreme examples where the behaviour of individual team members gets out of whack with the organisation’s values and objectives.
In my own experience, I’ve found communicating the values of the company to be among the hardest parts of growing a business. When taking on team members it’s often easy to focus on the nuts and bolts “job to get done” and skip over the true values of the company and the culture of how it’s appropriate to act towards colleagues, trading partners and customers. A few years ago I joined a company which had a particularly poor reputation in its sector. It was seen as a badly-behaved big business that took advantage of its customers with high prices and long contracts. My team had the job of turning around the reputation of the company – a company whose leadership had a genuine care for its customers and wanted to reconnect with them at a fundamental level.
In taking one partner out for lunch, I was told in no uncertain terms that: “I’m fed up with the person in your chair promising that things are going be equitable, only to find out later that I’m being set up to take the hit.” After working hard with that partner for more than six months and delivering a real improvement in the relationship, my counterpart told me: “It all started that first lunch when you paid the bill. No-one I’d met before from your company would have picked up the tab, they’d have expected me to do it.” By extending the basic courtesy and good manners that are essential in any relationship, I’d been true to the headline on our relationship – “partner”, and when I had to justify the expense, it was easy to do among colleagues who each understood that the company’s approach needed to reflect our objectives.
So what can you do to ensure that each team member is empowered to act in a way that’s consistent with where your company is headed?
- Identify your values. Mission statements are a bit old hat, but being clear about your brand and your values is essential to the success of any business. Find all the ways you can bring those alive in how you run the company and act with colleagues.
- Set out clear objectives. Knowing what you need to get done in a given quarter/month/week helps you decide what you can’t do – and that’s essential. Knowing what you can’t do means you won’t be over-confident and can pay your bills on time.
- Keep your word. Tracking what you’ve committed to – in public and in private, in the big things and the small is the only way to build trust. Don’t let being disorganised be your excuse – systems like GTD (Getting Things Done) are your friend.
- Pay your bills on time. Small businesses suffer at the hands of big companies who don’t pay their bills – so lead from the front and ensure that you pay your bills on time. Not only is it the right thing to do, but your credit rating will improve and you’ll benefit as a result.
- Say sorry when you get things wrong. Ask for forgiveness and help getting things right next time.
- Finally, be honest with yourself – and with others – about what you see in the world around you. This week as the people of Europe and Greece struggle with a situation that many argue should never have arisen, there’s the ideal opportunity to go back to values and think long and hard about the right thing to do. Whilst I’m not a politician and don’t have a solution to propose, I can also see very clearly that pretending everything’s going to be OK is not a route that will work, because it lacks integrity.