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Messengers or Missionaries – Postscript

November 26, 2010

Here’s a brief addendum to my last post about messages from this week’s Corporate Communications Conference in Bahrain.

More than one of the speakers spoke about the importance of corporate values. If you don’t have a set of defined values, they said, how can you expect your employees to communicate – especially in the social media – in the same philosophical language?

I don’t believe in corporate values. For me, only people have values, and very few of us stick to them through thick and thin. If you have a company with leadership that is cohesive and like-minded, then you have a chance – as long as that leadership remains in place – of those values permeating the organization. But as soon as the leadership changes, the values change. If you have strong governance in the form of a board that broadly shares a set of core values, then the construct of company values has a chance of remaining relevant a bit longer.

This is one of the reasons why it’s so damnably difficult to maintain a continuity of management philosophy within an organization. Large companies with HR teams spend huge amounts of money building competencies based on that defined set of corporate values, and they wonder why there is disappointment and disillusionment when newly hired employees find that the reality is far from the construct.

Family businesses – seen by many as corporate dinosaurs – can retain a coherent belief system based on the values of the founders for as long as the original owners stay in control. In the case of family businesses, the values of the father also have a good chance of rubbing off on the sons and daughters. In the Middle East, family patriarchs still influence the values of those who succeed them well beyond retirement, because of the cultural tradition of respect for older generations.

The same often applies to business founded by a small number of partners. After the demise of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, HP continued to espouse the values encapsulated in the legendary The HP Way. But in the aftermath of the many acquisitions the company made in the 2000s, as well as a few controversial events affecting the recent leadership, one wonders how many of the new generation of HP employees, many of whom came from acquired companies such as Compaq, EDS and Palm, would agree that the principles of the HP Way reflect today’s reality. I’m not saying they don’t, by the way – just that as a company reinvents itself, it often has a problem staying true to the beliefs of the founders.

In both cases, coherence of philosophy and sense of purpose remain intact because they are derived from the personal philosophies of a small group of powerful leaders with a vested interest in the business – sometimes a single individual. As soon as the hired hands take over, the disconnects and fissures start to emerge, until the organisation starts to reflect the personality of the new leadership.

So my advice to corporate communicators, humbly offered, is to carefully map any gaps between values construct and the reality on the ground before you stake your reputations on high profile communications based on corporate values. Believing in fantasy is easy to do if all around you believe in it too. But then the emperor takes his clothes off…..

Anyone interested in this subject might want to take a look at The Thin Veneer, a longer piece I posted a few months ago.

From → Business, Middle East

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