Gordon Brown may have stopped short of breaking into a chorus of “We Are The World” (just!) but, bursting with all the usual platitudes about shared values, his speech to both houses on Capitol Hill still had me dangerously close to reaching for the sick bucket.
You see, I have some real issues with values-based leadership and communications. Three issues, to be precise…
1. Zero differentiation
The most obvious problem is that most sets of company values are so completely vacuous – the same tired bullet-pointed list of words, many of which (it so often turns out) are identical to competitors and which, in any event, say nothing meaningful about the organisation…
Customer-focused? Well, whom else exactly is a business supposed to focus on if it means to sell anything?
Integrity? I hardly expected you to tell me that you’re duplicitous!
Quality? And there’s me thinking you were intentionally going to sell me something sub-standard!
These aren’t differentiators; they’re pre-requisites for playing the game.
2. Zero authenticity
The second major problem with values-based communications is that it’s almost inevitable that someone in the senior management team will, at some point, act in a manner that directly contravenes those supposedly treasured values.
For example, it’s a bit rich the UK government lecturing the banks on responsibility right now when a senior cabinet minister has been happily playing the system to obtain £116,000 in allowances for her supposed second home (allegedly!).
Values only carry any meaning if they are a true reflection of internal culture – those fundamental, immutable beliefs about an organisation that everyone shares in common.
3. Zero direction
Thirdly, if values are meant to act as some sort of moral compass, guiding actions and behaviours, that compass actually needs to be pointing somewhere.
The trouble is that, all too often, it seems that values-based leadership is seen as an alternative, rather than complementary, to the articulation of a clear vision – the easy escape route for a leadership team uncomfortable with ambiguity.
If the compass is pointing somewhere, it tends to be backwards not forwards, seeking to create a common bond by eulogising heritage.
Whilst there’s nothing wrong with that per se, if it’s not accompanied by a parallel process that sets out a shared vision of a changed future, it’s extremely hard for people to internalise those values, to understand their immediate relevance, and to adapt their behaviours accordingly.
The result? Lots of great words and intentions, but nothing in the way of material change and progress.
And that, in essence, is my beef with Brown’s speech. The rhetoric may have implied that there are no sacred cows, but the reality is that the major question marks still stand – especially in respect of notions of growth.