Sustainability: What about “values”?

I just published an article on “Helping business leaders talk about sustainability.”  The article focused on business “value,” with virtually no discussion of moral or ethical “values.” So am I a heathen or just a sell-out?

Neither, I hope.

In one of the first blogs I posted on this web site back in 2011, I wrote: “Remember both value and values. Any time you’re thinking about only one, you’re destined to fail one way or the other.”  I got some interesting comments then including:

  • “I strongly support … the focus on values driving value.” [VP corporate social responsibility, apparel]
  • “Value/value perspective [particularly interesting], as I do believe that to be the truth – when I have chased one without the other – I have not succeeded.” [CEO, marketing]
  • “I’m a big proponent of sticking to a core set of values that drives all decisions and actions.  Your values need to be your ‘rudder’ and there will be times that it results in sacrificing value or $.  I don’t see value and values as equals.  The old adage – stick to your values carries a lot of weigh in my book.” [VP HSE, manufacturing]
  • “Value and values should be the same.”  [Marketing executive]

So am I backing off of that exhortation to remember both value and values?  No. What I am doing is recognizing the realities of business, especially American business.

If there is a truly meaningful “values” conversation that your leadership engages in, and if you can be part of that conversation, fine.  But often there’s a Catch-22. If the conversation is open, it may not be the genuine, honest senior leadership conversation about values.  If it is that important conversation, it’s probably not going to be open to very many people.

Too often, the values conversation isn’t real. Many open discussions of values are more about internal branding than setting a moral compass.  Committees work to draft statements about “our values.”  More energy then goes to putting those values into a nice typeface than into putting them into action.

If the values conversation is real, getting into it is particularly tough for corporate sustainability leaders.  Given the nature of the sustainability role, many business leaders already have their shields up against their own staff preaching at them.

You have to earn the right to participate in those tougher values conversations by leading the simple, clear business value conversation first.

That’s all I’m saying. Think about value and values at the same time.  Talk about value first.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients.]   

Blessings of Collaboration

The candles I’d put in the Chanukah menorah fell over. The large Sikh leader – broad, tall, flowing white clothes and silver beard – and the diminutive Buddhist nun – small, dark robed, shaved head – leapt forward together to catch the candles. The Sikh and the Buddhist quickly placed the candles back in the menorah, so that the nice Jewish lady could light them. She then lit the candles and said the prayers, up at the front of the Methodist church, in front of over 300 people from at least eight different faith communities.

[Photo by Nils Peterson, used with permission of Interfaith Action of Evanston.  Full set of event photos available on Facebook.]

That’s how my holiday season began, at an interfaith service the night before Thanksgiving.  I witnessed a spontaneous act of collaboration.  Nobody told those folks to help each other.  No incentive system was in place to reward collaboration.  No calculations were involved. Just an instantaneous, instinctive act of mutual support.

That sets the bar pretty high for many of us.  Often we struggle with raising the level of collaboration in our own organizations.  There are a few obvious challenges:

  • Most of our organizations are built on competition (and with good reasons)
  • While many of our organizations talk about values, few are as rooted in their values as the communities represented that night (and fewer still have selflessness as one of their corporate core values)
  • Most of us work for a living, our living depends on how well performance and behavior match incentives, and incentives are usually tied to outcomes

Even so, there may be a useful lesson.  The kind of instinctive collaboration I saw that night is about culture and values.  The right incentives can help reinforce collaboration. The wrong ones can certainly get in the way. True collaboration, though, doesn’t come from a begrudging calculation of self-interest, or from your fears that you might fail.  It comes from your genuine hope that the other person succeeds.  You could almost call it the Golden Rule of collaboration: collaborate with others as you would have them collaborate with you. Maybe we can find ways within our organizations – and beyond – to remember that this season and into the new year.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients.]