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Guiding Your Culture into Possibility


Associations play an important role in the world. They are not driven by money, but mission. They exist to work toward bettering things through a variety of methods, including teaching, advocacy and setting standards for what “good” looks like.

Many times, however, as associations work to serve various constituents, they try to keep a balanced approach on core issues so not to upset any particular group of members. While doing this — that is, while playing it safe — they end up losing the opportunity to use their voice for the betterment of others.     

This dynamic is not just about associations. All organizations should have a mission, a vision and values that guide them. While for-profit organizations may be more direct about chasing revenue as a priority, they also need to be sure about who they are and what they stand for as they measure their actions against the expectations of stakeholders, employees and customers.

The prevalent theme of inequality in the United States today provides organizations an opportune moment to showcase who they are and what they stand for. For those who value equity, showing who you are now is an important step in the inevitable longer-term effort to help each person bring their true and full self into work.

There is a tendency to act only when things are trending, but the real work must continue even when the headlines shift. You may be tempted to ignore causes that on the surface don’t seem to involve you. However, if you are a champion for full equity, then you must continue to work on the systems that inherently create an unlevel playing field for others. I think Nelson Mandela said it very profoundly, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”    

Crystallizing the Core

From a leadership standpoint, there is a critical next step for many organizations: Crystallize to your employees what your organization stands for and do it with great urgency, specificity, and clarity. This means going much deeper than counting on the mission, vision and value statements plastered to the walls of the offices we used to occupy. It means talking about your actions, reactions and leadership pivots that illuminate more about you and your principles in the context of current events.

In the last several weeks multiple organizations have spoken out against racism and violence, with many big brands releasing specific statements about who they are, what they stand for and what they stand against. Some brands have removed institutionalized icons such as Aunt Jemima and Space Mountain due to their racist origins. Donations toward causes like anti-racism have emerged almost daily. And just recently, the Dixie Chicks changed their names to “The Chicks.”

In June alone, countless brands — from Diesel to Target to Walmart — have offered an array of options for those wishing to participate in the celebration of Pride Month to honor those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and questioning. On the Walmart pride section, the words that accompany the rainbow theme says, “All People. All Love. All Pride.” 

"From a leadership standpoint, there is a very important next step for many organizations. Crystallize to your employees what your organization stands for and do it with far greater urgency, specificity, and clarity than ever before." – Scott Cawood, president and CEO of WorldatWork

We all have fallen into the habit of attaching behaviors to organizations. For example, Costco believes in paying people fairly. United Airlines believes in diversity and inclusion. Yet, neither Costco nor United itself can actually believe in anything. So then, who are we really talking about when we assign beliefs or actions to organizations? Is it the team leading Costco or the CEO of United, or it is the collective group of employees and stakeholders that comprise these entities? Can we assume Walmart and Target are supporters of gay people because they sell gay pride products?

Let me reiterate: From a leadership standpoint, there is a very important next step for many organizations. Crystallize to your employees what your organization stands for and do it with far greater urgency, specificity, and clarity than ever before. 

Adhering to Core Values

Most organizations adopted “core values” following the 1994 release of the BusinessWeek bestseller, Good to Great by Jim Collins. Collins submitted in his book that greatness was best achieved when organizations adhered to a set of guidelines called core values. It set off a tidal wave of new ways to describe who the organizations were and what they believed to be important. 

This isn’t the end of the story on the work needed to show the world who you are. Don’t get me wrong. I love core organizational values and am always curious about them.  However, note the key word in the findings from Collins: Great organizations adhered to values; they didn’t just have them. 

Core values are powerful guideposts. They reveal some of who you are as an organization, but their more important role comes to light when situations arise, and your core values are tested. This is when you adhere to them despite the sometimes conspicuous action or controversial stance that they may require you to take. If you have a core value that speaks to leadership, diversity, integrity, or inclusion, then the last few months have offered multiple opportunities to show who you are by your actions and stances. Adherence to core values can be a defining moment or a completely missed opportunity to show who you are.

Too often, organizational leaders miss their chance to showcase who they are by their actions and, unfortunately, your workforce often will scrutinize how you demonstrate your core values. They will notice when you deviate. When your actions conflict with your core values, it erodes trust and turns something powerful into something destructive.

When I worked on the annual Fortune magazine list of the “100 Best Companies to Work for,” I visited companies to either talk about the need to build great workplaces or to witness some of the ones we identified as the best. During one visit to a cosmetics manufacturing organization, I watched as every employee was thoroughly searched as they entered and exited the facility. Once inside, I met the plant manager and we began the tour. I noticed on the walls a great poster of their core values, with the first one being “trust.” 

I relayed my observation of the search to the manager and asked if trust was really their No. 1 core value and, if so, how was that demonstrated each day? He told me the value indeed was real, but the invasive practice of patting down their employees was because they had some issues with missing products. I politely suggested that it wasn’t trust they had as a value; it was anti-theft. Your core values should not be used to fix your culture, they should be used to guide it into possibility. 

Sending a Clear Signal

As the CEO of WorldatWork, I like to remind our employees that our association is in the business of people. We strive to help each worker have a better experience at work. That means, regardless of our own personal beliefs, we, as an association, will always fight for every person to be able to bring their full self to work. That means not only do we recognize and honor differences, we leverage them. When we see things that are not equitable, we take action.  

For example, last year, when WorldatWork announced soccer star Megan Rapinoe was headlining our pay equity symposium, I received an email that expressed grave concerns about selecting Ms. Rapinoe as our keynote. More recently, I was asked “which side” of the Black Lives Matter issue were we on. And, finally, not long ago I was asked to participate in a national effort that did not align with our view about putting people first in organizations.  

All of these situations were opportunities. Moreover, they were moments when I had to choose to take a stand. And, since my job duties are fairly vague (all duties assigned by the board), I made a choice and responded to all of them. Afterwards, I shared my responses with our entire organization to send a very clear signal of who we are and what we collectively stand for. My hope is that these responses made our employees proud of where they work. I too hope they gave them both the insight and courage to better navigate these turbulent times.

About the Author

Scott Cawood Bio Image

Scott Cawood, Ed.D, CCP, CBP, GRP, CSCP, WLCP is the president and CEO of WorldatWork.

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