Values: It's All in the Feet

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Leaders must continually communicate the organization's ethical expectations.


Editor's Note: This article is an excerpt from the book Leadership in My Rearview Mirror, published by MC Press.


Just before Thanksgiving 1969, I was officially informed that I would be getting orders to the Republic of Vietnam following my Advanced Individual Training. This news came as no surprise to me, but Maureen had managed to convince herself that something would change before I got my orders. Her father, who had served in the Navy during WWII, had gotten orders to the Pacific. The war, however, had ended while he was en route, and he never got farther than California. Whoever said "the toughest job in the Army is being a soldier's spouse" knew what he or she was talking about.


A few weeks later I graduated, and, like Maureen's dad, I landed in California; however, unlike Maureen's dad, my stay lasted only three days before I continued my travels another eight thousand miles across the Pacific.


Once in Vietnam, it took a few weeks to get to a company. We had processing and additional training to go through. I finally reached my company at night several weeks after I arrived in country. I was stationed in a beautiful spot in the very northern part of South Vietnam, just outside the provincial capital of Hue in Phu Bai Province. It was hot and very humid—everything seemed strange. I felt disoriented. But I will never forget reporting to the first sergeant. There were three of us: Brent Law, Chris Christopherson, and me.


I walked to the orderly room, where a fairly large first sergeant sat, and stated, as did the others, that I was reporting for duty: "Private Beach reports for duty." With that, First Sergeant Ira M. Rogers, from San Antonio, Texas, stood up behind his desk. The first words out of his mouth were, "I'm not only the first sergeant but a Baptist deacon. Let me tell you what I will and will not accept in this company!" That was over forty years ago, and it is still vivid in my memory. He let us know that there was only one color in his unit, and that color was green; that if we used drugs, he would do all in his power, of which he assured us he had a great deal, to see we went to jail; and that we were soldiers in combat with a mission to win a war, but that we were also representatives of the United States, and therefore, we would treat civilians with respect. First Sergeant Rogers not only talked the talk, he walked the talk. He ran a very disciplined company.


What I learned from that initial encounter with First Sergeant Rogers was to make values clear from the start, in your words and by your actions. Actions are imperative, but being open and up front with a clear statement of values reduces the time it takes for newcomers to discover what those values are. Values and norms must be purposefully instilled, promoted, and protected. If we do not set our values and norms, someone else will set theirs. Leaders must continually communicate the organization's ethical expectations. Employees should not be left to speculate as to what they may be. IBM is probably unique among companies in that our values were not handed down from on high. They came from IBMers at all levels throughout the enterprise. Nobody said, "This is what you must be." Rather we, hundreds of thousands of us, said, "This is what we want to be."1 Having a company set values in that way is special, but it in no way lessens the responsibility of the company's leaders to state explicitly and exemplify those values, lest any confusion or uncertainty arise over what is, and what is not, permissible conduct. Rather than lessen leaders' responsibility to talk and walk company values, the method IBM chose to establish its values increases the leaders' obligation to instill and exemplify values because IBMers have told their leaders what they expect their leaders to be. Leaders have to make sure their people know they got the message.


So, how do leaders communicate company values?


First of all, leaders must talk to their people about company values. Such conversations should occur when people first come to the company or move to a new unit within the company. There should also be periodic reminders given to all employees. Even if employees know company values, leaders should ensure that their people know that those values are foremost in the leaders' thinking. Leaders have to take ownership of what the company stands for and see that their people personally adopt those values. As Nick Donofrio, IBM's former executive VP, technology and innovation, explained to a group of new executives and distinguished engineers, "If we are moving toward greatness, it is because you are. The values have to be your values, not the company values or the values on the third floor.2 The journey to greatness is not a corporate journey—it's a personal journey."


Sometime, early in the matriculation of people into a unit, the leader of that unit should let the new employees know what the company's values are and then help them see what those values look like in that organization. As leaders, we must tell our people what we are doing, what the organization is doing, and what we expect them to be doing to live out those values. Leaders must also impress upon their people that leaders need feedback to keep things on track—and that they expect their people to provide that feedback. A number of years ago, New York City had a mayor named Ed Koch. He became known for stopping New Yorkers on the street and asking, "How am I doing?" Leaders need to hear how they are doing—and how they can do even better. Leaders not only have responsibility to make their people accountable for respecting company values; they also have responsibility to see that their people hold their leaders and each other accountable.


That the phrase "actions speak louder than words" is a cliché makes it no less true. The ultimate proof that we not only know the values but also believe in them is our behavior—we need to walk the talk. Set the personal example. Reinforce others who support the values, and correct those who do not. People in leadership positions cannot escape being role models. A few years ago, Keenie McDonald, IBM's managing director for WellPoint, was talking to a group of new IBM executives. She pointed her finger at them and said, "They talk about you at the dinner table!" Similarly, Dan Pelino, general manager of IBM's healthcare and life sciences, also talking to a group of new IBM executives, put it more graphically when he stated, "You are dinner fodder." Leaders at all levels are important in the lives of the people they lead. People pay attention to even subtle behaviors of leaders and take their cues from the leaders' example. What we do, or do not do, always speaks louder than what we say.


Values have to be more than a document. There are always two sets of values in any organization: those espoused and those practiced. There needs to be a high positive correlation between the two. Enron's values were Respect, Integrity, Communication, Excellence. But as one Enron employee put it, "We talked values. We didn't act on them." To paraphrase Aristotle, to determine a person's values, you watch his feet, not his mouth. Leaders walk their values. It's all in the feet.3



1.   In 2003, IBM undertook the first reexamination of its values in nearly 100 years. Through Values Jam, an unprecedented 72-hour discussion on IBM's global intranet, all IBMers were invited to come together to define the essence of the company. The result was a set of core values, defined by IBMers for IBMers, that shapes the way we lead, the way we decide, and the way we act. In the end, IBMers determined that our actions will be driven by these values: (1) Dedication to every client's success; (2) Innovation that matters, for our company and for the world; (3) Trust and personal responsibility in all relationships.

2.   By "on the third floor," he was referring to corporate headquarters. The most senior executives have offices on the third floor.

3.   The actual quote is: "Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts."