I recently witnessed something amazing.  When discussing a new program to help some of society’s most vulnerable, a team member asked whether current customers might frown on this.  What about a ‘bad headline’ that sticks with our customers, they asked?

The CEO responded, without hesitation, “I’ve fired customers before.  This is the right thing to do”.     And just like that, I witnessed a natural values-driven leader in action.

Another co-founder of a successful start-up recently shared with me that, when he was starting his company, his partner insisted they spend time defining their values as a company.  At the time he thought it was a pain in the rear.  Years down the road, and 20 hires later, he reflects back on that as the best time he spent.  He now grounds every conversation he has with his team back to these values.  This is the case for positive conversations: “Great job being a real team player”, and in the case of disciplinary conversations: “Does your behaviour reflect our commitment to excellence?”.  Every day, in every conversation, he commits to living their values, and teaches his team to do the same.

Being a values-driven leader comes naturally to some, like our first example, and for others, it takes work.  Both are heroes.

Corporate values are a funny thing.  They are the biggest of words: FAIRNESS, ACCOUNTABILITY, TEAM WORK, EXCELLENCE, FUN.  And yet they actually come alive in small, everyday actions.  You don’t just say you are fun…you have to BE fun – every day for it to mean something.

A leader who I admire greatly shared with me that building a culture based on values is all about knowing when to intervene as a leader.  His example was HR departments who tend to want to fire people inhumanely.  Escort them out of the building.  The problem for your culture (other than the hurtful effect on the person getting fired) is that the people left in the building witness this too.  They see how little value the organization places on its people.  And they remember.  The leader needs to know when to step in and say “No, you can’t do that”.  Because it doesn’t reflect our values as a company.

Whether you formally define them, know them instinctively, or know them when you see them, either way, good or bad, your values are defined by your actions.  Living them every day may be THE most important work.  Because, believe me, your employees are watching.