The guiding principles of mission, vision, and values have been written about time and again, and with good reason. They provide members of an organization with context:
What your organization is doing and why (framed in relation to the customer)
Where you are going (aspirational and motivational)
The rules you play by (what you stand for)
Many people believe a company can define its guiding principles by consensus. While I believe it is absolutely necessary to get input from employees and customers, ultimately this task must be the responsibility of the CEO. I've learned this through experience: previous efforts involving the whole company—while valuable—just hadn't articulated the kind of concrete direction that FWI needed. So, I isolated myself for twenty-four hours and examined what I wanted FWI to be … what I wanted it to stand for. I looked back at where we had been as a company: our successes, our failures, our products, our people. I thought about where we were today and where I'd like us to go tomorrow.
I considered each question from three standpoints: my personal feelings and aspirations for the company; our customers' point of view, obtained through focus groups and years of meetings; and, just as important, the opinions of my employees, both past and present. In taking these different perspectives into consideration, I tried my best to ensure that the direction I defined for FWI would be clearly and consistently understood by all its stakeholders.
My first conclusion was that values came before all else. It only makes sense—you can't truly be accountable and earn trust without first gaining a sense of your own values. Similarly, it's an empty exercise to develop statements of vision and mission if you first don't understand your company's core values. In Good to Great, Jim Collins writes,
An important caveat to the concept of core values is that there are no specific "right" core values for becoming an enduring great company…. A company need not have passion for its customers (Sony didn't), or respect for the individual (Disney didn't), or quality (Wal-Mart didn't), or social responsibility (Ford didn't) in order to become enduring and great. The point is not what core values you have, but that you have core values at all, that you know what they are, that you build them explicitly into the organization, and that you preserve them over time.
Should values be aspirational? Yes. But while they should represent your highest ideals, they also must represent your true beliefs, not just a laundry list of every noble principle you can think of. It is difficult, if not impossible, to be truly guided by a statement of values in which you are not personally invested.
Several years before, we as a company had collectively developed a long list of values to which we aspired. This list included entries such as these: be the best, make a difference, be focused, have fun, and so on. On the surface, there was nothing wrong with this list. Yet I felt compelled to revisit and revise it. Why? First of all, while I don't believe that employees should have to memorize each and every word of a values statement, the values themselves should be brief and memorable. I felt this list was too long and disconnected. Secondly, it was obvious that some of the entries were more cultural descriptors rather than significant guiding principles, which pass the litmus test of "What do we stand for?" For example, while it's an important aspect of our company culture, do we really "stand for" having fun?
Finally, even though "be the best," "make a difference," "be focused," and "embrace change" didn't make the final list, that doesn't mean we don't strive for excellence and innovation. However, I felt the bedrock values that underlie the relationships both within and outside FWI were first and foremost. In fact, as addressed later, organizational excellence and innovation are the result of a company's dedication to the values that strengthen and sustain stakeholder relationships. So, in the end, I found that I needed to look no further than the values of integrity, accountability, and trust.
FWI VALUES STATEMENT
At FWI, our values guide how we work and how we care for our customers and colleagues.
Ultimately, the FWI values statement is a constant reminder for all of us at the company. All the stakeholders know what our values are and what they mean. These values guide how we work, the decisions we make, and most important, how we treat each other and our customers. By keeping the list to its essential components—no matter what yours may be—you create a values statement that is memorable and lasting.
After values come an organization's mission and vision: its daily business and its ultimate goal. "People joined within a company can be inspired by shared values," writes brand strategy consultant Daryl Travis. "But they can also be motivated by shared purpose. And the two are not the same. Values relate to ideals and principles. Purpose relates to strategy and action." The debate continues about whether to separate mission from vision; for me, the answer emerged from my own defining process. While there was a distinction between our day-to-day business and what we ultimately dreamed of becoming, I found the two were so interconnected that it made the most sense to combine them into one "purpose statement." A purpose combines the mission and vision into one statement that brings a sense of the aspirational to the everyday. It reminds stakeholders about the meaning behind their jobs—and helps frame their daily decision making within the context of a larger companywide goal.
A visionary statement leads off our purpose. In an earlier team visioning exercise, at FWI we had focused on the impact of what we do: by providing the highest quality unbiased news and information to our readers, we are indeed enhancing health care. So, when it came to formulating our purpose statement, I placed that "ultimate impact" component front and center. We leverage the power of information to enhance human health. By infusing our daily mission with our larger aspiration, that one sentence reframed and transformed the importance of our work for everyone in the company. Our purpose is indeed larger than the research, writing, and editing we do on a daily basis—but it's through these day-to-day activities that we get there.
FWI PURPOSE STATEMENT
At FWI, we leverage the power of information to enhance human health.
The FWI brand is a symbol of integrity, authority, and trust. Through unequaled information products and services, our purpose is to
Next, I wanted to reinforce what our brand stood for: integrity (of the information itself, as well as how we interact with our customers); authority (the earned right to be experts in health care); and trust (that our readers can trust our judgment in what we report and how we report it). Finally, our purpose needed to be in the present, actionable, and framed by what we do for our different customers and how we impact their lives. This last point bears repeating: your purpose statement serves no purpose if it doesn't describe what you do for your customers.
As important as it is for leaders to define their organization's values and purpose, communicating these principles and goals in a meaningful way is even more critical. After I presented FWI's values and purpose, I gave my employees free rein to critique what they saw. I specifically asked them what they felt was missing and, conversely, what they felt was out of place. I wanted to get their perspective on whether the statements were challenging or unrealistic. Armed with this feedback, I went back and finalized our values and purpose statements. The ultimate decision was mine, but by seeking the input of my employees, I went a long way toward creating buy-in.
After previous well-meaning attempts, this final approach to identifying our values and purpose proved definitive. As FWI's leader, I drove the process and made the final call. The values came first before all else, because, I believe, a company's values are more important than any product it makes. The language is actionable, inspirational, and meaningful to everyone in the organization, be they a veteran or a new hire. And most important, the story is unique to our company—the values and purpose relate what we stand for, who we are, and what we aspire to be.
Can an organization's values and purpose change over time? Conventional wisdom suggests that values should be immutable—that long after its founder is gone, a company's original values will live on, having withstood the test of time. I agree with this line of thinking. But companies are not unlike people: while values may be established early on, life experience is their true test. Certain values may not become apparent until a situation brings them to the forefront. Throughout its life span, a company's values should be revisited and reexamined.
Even if the values and purpose of an organization don't change over time, its strategies, structure, products, and markets should. As Jim Collins notes, "Enduring great companies preserve their core values and purpose while their business strategies and operating practices endlessly adapt to a changing world." At FWI, we know that the integrity of our information is at our core. We have changed or expanded how we produce and disseminate our content, who we produce content for and why, and strategies for how we profitably grow our business in a fiercely competitive marketplace. But without the quality and integrity of our content, we would cease to exist as FWI.
To summarize, in Accountable Organizations values and purpose are driven by leadership—not by committee. Values and purpose statements must be unique, meaningful, and inspiring to the organization. Finally, the leadership must continually find ways to instill, communicate, and reinforce its guiding principles throughout the culture, both in words and actions. If reinforced and embraced by senior management, an organization's values and purpose can serve as powerful litmus tests for all stakeholders when planning and executing, when challenged with conflict, or when confronted with fork-in-the-road decisions.
About once a year, I use this simple process to engage myself in the mind-set of a dreamer. It takes less than an hour of uninterrupted time. Get paper, a pencil, and a calculator (or a laptop) and find a comfortable spot to think about and answer the questions below.
Pick a date five to ten years in the future.
Look at your current annual revenue, and multiply that amount by ten.
Now, let that date and revenue number transport you to the future. Having reached this level of success, what does your business look like? Get descriptive. How many employees do you have? How big are your facilities? What does your product mix look like? Who are your customers? As with any brainstorming exercise, don't edit your thoughts. Just write them down.
After you've finished, ask yourself the most important question: "What did I have to do to get here?"
From the future's perspective, look back at all that has happened over the years to bring your company to its present success. What kinds of milestones will you have passed? What kinds of major decisions will you have made? Looking back, what will have been your "big break"? You may choose to plot these milestones along a timeline that spans from today to the future date you've chosen.
You'll know that the exercise has been particularly powerful when you see that your company's values and purpose have been maintained—even strengthened—along the entire timeline. With some alterations, this exercise can be used to gain clarity in any context, no matter where you are in an organization. For example, say you are a product director for a $50 million brand. Give yourself a time frame of seven years and multiply by ten. First, you may find the entire market for your product today is only $200 million. How do you get to $500 million? Should you grow the market? Do you need a line extension? How much share can you grab from competitors? Can you market your product globally? Whatever your situation, find a way to set the future, create the multiple, describe that future reality, and then look at the steps that got you there. In this particular example, when you're typically focused tactically on annual plans and making your quarterly numbers, you will be surprised at how "thinking big" changes your perspective.
If you find yourself stuck when it comes to envisioning your future, throw out the money aspect. A friend of mine once had me pull out a piece of paper and sketch out my ideal organizational structure two to three years in the future, with money as no object. Specific names were not important, just general ideas of groups, departments, leaders. At the end of the exercise, I had in front of me a structure that had far more breadth and depth than I would have constructed hire-by-hire going forward. With this aspirational structure in front of me, I could then go back and see who the next hires would be within a larger strategy.
Exercises like these can help spark your creativity. Even if you don't consider yourself a visionary, you have the ability to paint an inspiring picture of your organization's future success. Consider using this kind of exercise every year as you go through your planning process.
Defining your values and purpose, while challenging, is the easy part. One of the true challenges is when money is on the line. I encountered this test early on in FWI's history. As related earlier, fearing for my company's very existence, I took on a project when I had no business doing so. The episode resulted in no financial gain and a damaged relationship to boot. It was a good lesson, though, and one of the key reasons FWI has continued to thrive.
A significant portion of our business consists of providing physicians with the latest research and product news affecting their specialty. Physicians don't pay to receive these updates; rather, they are funded through contracts we have with health care companies. Though they're writing the checks, the companies we contract with relinquish editorial control. They pay us to deliver true educational value to physicians—not to be a mouthpiece for their marketing departments. How do we get for-profit companies to go along with this?
Like everyone else, physicians are skeptical. They have become trained to look for the angle, the pitch. However, what they receive from us are objective, unbiased updates about what's going on in their specialty. Even though the sponsoring company is clearly identified, it's just as clear that what's being communicated is news the physician can use. Sometimes what's making the news isn't flattering to the sponsoring company's drug. Sometimes the news involves competing drugs. We report it all as objectively and accurately as possible.
Time-strapped physicians appreciate how these updates help them stay abreast of what's happening in their specialties: groundbreaking research, health policy developments, actions by the Food and Drug Administration. They appreciate the quality of the editorial direction and writing. But above all, they appreciate that a health care company (often pharmaceuticals) would have the insight and intellectual honesty to sponsor such a service. The approach that FWI takes in helping health care companies support physicians is focused on building trust. In our opinion, there is no better way to build a brand.
It can be a tough sell. First and foremost, the job of marketers is to increase sales of their product; it makes sense that they'd instinctively want to control the messaging associated with their product. With our services, that message is subtle: it's one of trust, born of the sponsoring company's desire to help physicians do their job better—even if it means letting them know that a competitor's drug has value, too. Similarly, FWI's partnerships with its sponsoring companies are founded on trust. These relationships take time to cultivate—sometimes years. We have to earn our partners' business by proving our trustworthiness and commitment to quality.
If we abandoned that differentiating factor, we'd be throwing our hat into the ring with thousands of other companies that promise their clients flat-out messaging—pure advertising without the goal of developing trust-based relationships. As a former pharmaceutical marketer myself, I know there is a place for this kind of promotion. However, by clinging to our objectivity, FWI offers companies the opportunity to provide physicians with something truly special: differentiated value based on objective information and trust.
Bottom line: If we didn't walk away from contracts that would compromise our objectivity, we'd lose our edge. We'd lose what differentiated us as a valued partner both to the health care industry and to physicians. We'd throw away what got us to being able to say no in the first place.
Integrity is a challenge not only to attain, but also to maintain. It means sticking to your guns and turning down business that would compromise your organization's values and purpose. Companies that don't know how to say no will find it difficult to earn trust—after all, how can customers trust a company when they don't know what it stands for?
Accountable Organizations are clear about who they are and what they aspire to achieve. Gaining clarity means setting the parameters for accountable decision making: choices are made based on what your company believes in, not what sounds good at the time. Similarly, once defined, values and purpose set the stage for creating a meaningful strategic plan, which is discussed in chapter 5.
BUILDING THE ACCOUNTABLE ORGANIZATION
Jim Collins, Good to Great (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 195.
Daryl Travis, Emotional Branding: How Successful Brands Gain the Irrational Edge (Roseville, CA: Prima Publishing, 2000), 102.