To start with a quick recap – In my previous essay, I explained that I feel very strongly that every company needs a mission, vision and core values. When defined well, they can be a powerful framework for guiding decisions and a strong foundation for a healthy organizational culture. I shared a framework that can help you find your own mission, vision and values, and emphasized that the real benefit is in making those values a red thread in your company, rather than a bit of filler in your employee handbook.
That’s where we’ll continue today.
From values to culture
I already explained how a company’s mission vision and values can be a prime differentiator and a serious competitive advantage when implemented correctly. In The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni goes a step further. To Lencioni, the stewardship of a company’s mission, vision and values ultimately determines its organizational health. An organization with a healthy culture is one with no politics and no confusion, or at least as little as possible. In Lencioni’s eyes, a truly healthy organizational culture is the only advantage left in a world where every company has access to much of the same business knowledge and talent as everyone else.
Most companies don’t really pay much attention to organizational culture, and it’s really quite understandable why. It’s hard, as it requires a lot of sustained work to make happen; it’s not sexy, so it often loses out to other, more ostensibly interesting topics on the agenda; it’s hard to measure, because it has so many aspects that are difficult to distill and quantify in a single measure; and it requires courage, to look honestly at yourself, your colleagues and your organization’s dysfunction, and to address them honestly, straightforwardly and continuously.
The problem is that, one way or another, your company will have *a* culture; you might as well be deliberate about it and make it work to your advantage. Build your company culture around your mission, vision and values, and make it clear that you expect people to live up to them. They’re not worth much if they only exist on paper or in your head; they need to be the foundation of a lived culture. Only then can you truly capitalize on their potential as a major competitive advantage.
Lucky for us, Lencioni has a created a model for how to do just this, so let’s dive right in!
In essence, Lencioni argues that a clear mission, vision and values alone aren’t enough. You also need an aligned leadership team; you need to overcommunicate your values in as many ways as possible; and you need to reinforce the values by making them an integral part of any and all processes that involve people.
1. Align the team
The first step in Lencioni’s framework builds on his earlier work in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. He argues that dysfunction in the leadership team finds its way into the rest of the organization. Vice versa, a solid, aligned leadership team will have a much easier time creating an organizational environment that is similarly aligned and functional.
According to Lencioni, a team is aligned when there is trust, room for constructive ideological conflict, all-around commitment to clear decisions, team members hold each other accountable for behaviors and performance, and everyone is focused on collective results.
Aligning your team on these points ensures behavioral alignment at the core of your organization, giving you the best chance at alignment in the rest of it. This part is so crucial that it deserves a separate essay, which I’ll share in the future. For now, check out my notes on The Five Dysfunctions of a Team to get a better feel for the dysfunction model, as well as some practical tips.
2. Create clarity
The second step in Lencionis’ model entails getting complete intellectual alignment around six questions. The goal is to get to a point where there is no confusion, and no gaps in the answers to these questions among the leadership team. This way, there can be no room for confusion downstream. These questions are where the mission, vision and values come in:
- Why do we exist?
This is your mission statement
- How do we behave?
These are your core values
- What do we do?
Borrowing from other theories, I would suggest framing this along the lines of core competencies (what are you best at?), competitive advantage (what do we do better than anyone else?) or both.
- How will we succeed?
While vision isn’t explicitly mentioned, I would suggest placing it in this part of the model. First, define your vision, or what it looks like when you have succeeded. Then, look at the steps needed to get there. With this question, Lencioni starts bridging the gap between theoretical concepts and actionable steps. In this step, you start bridging the theoretical concepts of mission, vision, values to a more practical mode.
- What is most important, right now?
Continuing from the previous question, this question connects the framework of your mission/vision/values to the here and now. It’s hard to overemphasize the value of this question. Remember: action without values is chaos, values without action is grandstanding, virtue signalling.
- Who must do what?
Both values and actions can only exist through the vector of people. This final question closes that loop, by anchoring both values and action to people through personal accountability.
Lencioni recommends that leadership keep this list with them at all times, and review them at set times to see if they need further revision or refinement.
3. Overcommunicate clarity
After working to get to a place of behavioral and intellectual alingment in your management team, it’s time to start overcommunicating your answers to the six questions. As marketers will tell you, people need to hear something around 7 times before the message sticks. Great leaders embrace this knowledge, and err on the side of saying too much, rather than too little. Share the answers to the six questions as often as you can, in as many ways as you can, as a constant reminder of what, *exacly*, the core of the company should be. Even if you’re only a small company, keeping your values front-and-center can be a powerful way of keeping all noses pointed in the same direction.
4. Reinforce clarity
Knowing the company values is one thing, living them is another. Besides overcommunication, Lencioni recommends incorporating your values into any and every process that involves people. This is where you have the most influence on turning your core values into a lived culture. Whether it’s hiring or firing, performance management or decision making, each of these processes should be (re)designed to intentionally and explicitly support and emphasize the mission, vision and values of the organization.
If you’re a small company, this might seem like it’s overkill, but look at it this way: rather than copying boring, impersonal corporate processes, why not give them a personal spin and design them in a way that reflect and reinforce your core values? As I stated at the beginning of this essay: one way or another, your company is going to have *a* culture, it might as well be one of your own design.
Finally, Lencioni stresses that to really make this work, organizations have to get better at meetings. Most of the information in your organization will flow through one or more meetings at some point, and knowing how to host efficient and productive meetings is a game changer. I will write a separate essay on this topic in the future, but you can check out Lencioni’s suggestion for a meeting rhythm in his roadmap below.
Following these steps will ensure that you get the most out of your values, and increases the odds tremendously of turning them into a true competitive advantage for your company.
Lencioni has provided a helpful summary on his website, as well as a suggested roadmap for implementing these steps in your organization. Combine these with Jim Collins’ template for defining your company’s mission, vision and values, and you’ll have all the tools you need to start turning your values into a true, lasting competitive advantage.
This essay by Martijn van Zwieten examines best-in-class business and strategy models, and adapts them for use by creative enterprises. This article has originally been published on May 23, 2021 here.