The role of values in high-performing teams
As a focused provider of strategic talent advisory services, we are obsessed with the topic of team performance: especially as it concerns leadership teams within ascendant companies and brands (how they are made up, how they work together, the culture they pervade).
As a result of privileged contact with a myriad of companies, across the continuum of start-up to established businesses, the pattern has become clear. A differentiated service proposition idea and a strategy to constantly outmanoeuvre the competition are all, clearly, very important. It is not, however, the place where the centre mass of success truly lies. There is a myriad of brilliant ideas, with sound stratagems behind them, scattered to the graveyard of failed endeavor. There is, conversely, a plenitude (it probably describes the near- majority) of very, very successful businesses where success hailed not from the idea, not from the strategy, as sound and sensible as they both were, but from the ruthless efficiency in which a team gathered around the resultant plan and executed it. In simple terms, we have come to learn that observed success falls to those who get team and execution first, ideas and strategy: a close second.
Whilst this is a multi-dimensional topic (and one we love to discuss with our clients), in this article, we will unpack one very important facet of high-performing teams: the role of clear, shared values begets a strong culture that, in turn, begets winning behaviors and results.
To do so, we thought it might be instructive to describe our own experiences of settling on core values at Perpetual: – as we like to believe that this approach, as per many of our exemplar clients, is counter to the norm. “Physician heal thyself” – and all that.
Before I get going, we should expand on what we mean by “the norm” when it comes to the typical treatment of corporate values. Most businesses will, in unthinking Pavlov fashion, espouse that values are inherently important; many will be able to point to an (often long) list of bland, platitude attributes. Amidst the mediocre masses, however, they rarely stand for much. Yes, the average team member might be able to point to the company poster above the photocopier but, in the main, they will need to walk over there to remember what they actually are (and this because they were created in some distant past by the founder or via some esoteric HR survey). For the norm, such espoused values have no special piquancy, no genuine resonance, no actual connection to behavioral norms. Typically, there is no silver thread between these words and actual moments of differentiated high-performance.
Let us, conversely, attempt to describe the role of values in high-performing teams – how they are established, communicated, reinforced and brought to life as genuine totems of culture.
Turning back to how we went about this:
Time and Space
One of the first meaningful indicators that a company leader actually believes that their team is worth investing in (beyond the default assertion that “it is all about people here”) is some actual investment!
To build teams and foster great companies, you actually need to spend some time and money on bringing your colleagues physically together: to regularly get away from the coalface in order to collectively work “on” the business (cf. “in” it).
We see such “off-sites” as a key success factor within many of our ascendant client companies. In a similar vein, Perpetual: regularly invests in the development of the company and staff. The event described here was an annual company retreat – five days out of the office as a whole company (nine staff at the time of writing). This comes at an actual cost and, more significantly, short-term revenue cost. What we all inherently know, however, is that the benefits of a well-run company event make such considerations trivial.
Once a company/team leader intuitively gets this point, the next key point is to plan such a gathering with pedantic attention-to-detail. The Perpetual: event – of which the values refresh session was but one component – was a hectic schedule of serials: business planning, company updates, professional development and well deserved social time. Not forgetting the pre-breakfast fun exercise sessions (“last team to paddle and swim around the yellow sea slide loses”) involving the whole firm. Everyone came away with that glow of worthy-fatigue – knowing we couldn’t have squeezed another drop out of the privileged time together.
A critical feature of such planning is the location and ergonomics of such an event – especially so for the time spent talking about company/team values. Talking about values inevitably feels somewhat contrived, or pseudo, when done in the windowless meeting room of your own office. Booking a chain hotel is unlikely to cut it either. To engender a genuine sense of honesty on this topic, your team will need to feel they are somewhere special. The Perpetual team certainly felt this – located as we were in a self-contained villa.
Such a setting needn’t be expensive (or carbon emission heavy) – just thoughtfully different and away from non-involved others. Indeed, the more down-to-earth, quirky and non-corporate the setting, the more suitable the backdrop for such a conversation.
At a more granular level, the other interesting dynamic with the setting we chose was the ability to move the team easily from one place to the next. Within our villa compound, there were perhaps four or five locations the whole team could up-and-shift to – as required to change the dynamic whenever facilitated discussion just needed a mood jolt.
In summary, a company’s leadership needs to take the “people are important” assertion from rhetoric-to-reality and the setting for such a conversation needs to be thoughtfully and thoroughly prepared.
So with the important matter of venue and event management taken care of, the next consideration is the process of facilitating a discussion on such a topic.
First, our sessions were led by two of the team – one of our senior leaders and a capable, junior colleague (indeed, the most recent new joiner to the company). Immediately it signalled that this was a whole team conversation: rank, position or tenure in the business is irrelevant when it comes to developing a set of genuinely shared beliefs.
The process was then explained. We were to look first at the founding values (as penned in our inaugural business plan) and discuss their current resonance. Next, we were going to be taken through the results of an online survey (our personal top 10 values chosen from a master set) we had all completed individually ahead of the retreat. This summary would reveal which of these (fairly generic) values carried the most support. Then we were going to look at the values statements of some benchmarked companies – respected businesses in the strategic talent advisory and search sector and more general exemplars. And then … well, we would see where that all took us.
This open-ended aspect, with hindsight, was key also. Such conversations can often be over-engineered and forced into a timetable. The real advantage of doing this over a few days was the ability to “play it by ear”; indeed, we probably came back to the topic four-to-five times over the course of the event. The facilitation was as much a riff as it was a pre-scored tune – and the result, commensurately, felt uniquely special.
Let us attempt to paint the actual steps in more detail to explain this.
In so doing, we should re-iterate that the important opening session achieved the critical aim of securing whole team engagement. We were all sat in a beautiful location, miles away from the everyday demands and distractions of the business, we were all feeling alive (as a result of the morning exercise, swim, breakfast and coffee). In short, we were all engaged in the stated aim: to meaningfully reflect upon, and update as necessary, the firm’s values.
Everyone was asked if they knew the pre-existing, espoused values:
- Continuous Commitment to our clients and candidates
- Quality – what we do, we do well
- Passionate about candidates and clients
- Sense of humor/self-deprecation
With honesty, it was clear that they were far from universally memorized (the common state of most corporate value lists). Once reminded, the team then constructively critiqued this starting point and whilst the stated values were all “worthy”, they were hardly intriguing or inspiring. Although novelty is not the primary pursuit, this set felt very pedestrian. There was also the issue of messy-logic duplication: “what is so different about continuous commitment, quality and passion for our clients?” went the debate. Finally, and most importantly, there was a limited sense of collective possession; they were pass downs from the (very well intended) pen of our founding MD. The first point of consensus had been reached: it was time for a refresh.