Empower the Team with Values


Last week I got a great shot-in-the-arm. Yes, that’s a good thing. On Tuesday my wife launched a new effort in Michigan to work with the CEOs of Michigan’s, Fortune magazine “100 Best Companies” to find innovative ways to support the attraction and growth of great employee-focused companies in Michigan. We know that all of the “best companies” make it a core business strategy to create an empowering culture, and they all say that this culture is essential to their proven business success. Expect some great things from this effort.

Then I went (not at taxpayer expense J) to the annual conference of the Great Place to Work Institute. The Institute administers the research, assessment of “great place” applicant companies, and does consulting on the Fortune list. Let me tell you one of many inspiring stories I heard there. The W.L. Gore corporation (best known for Gore-tex) has been on the list since the first book was written about great companies in 1984, and has made Fortune’s list every year. Gore is a breakthrough, scientific research-driven and global company. Their CEO Terri Kelly was saying that their culture works, because it is not just her talk that drives it. Instead nearly every one of Gore’s associates (not employees) takes responsibility for building this culture. She gave the following example.

Because they depend on cutting edge, high-tech breakthroughs, they are extremely protective of their scientific research. Terri was visiting one of their facilities in Asia. Because she began as a textiles engineer, she was scientifically curious about a product under development. She asked the team, “how does it work?” After a little silence one of their young, Asian associates said, “Terri, do you have a true need to know?” Wo! Look out! Right? What kind of insubordination was this?! But a core cultural value at Gore is to protect the confidentiality of research, and the test for sharing information is: Is there a genuine-need-to-know? So this young researcher was owning the company values. Terri Kelly’s response? “You know. You’re right. I don’t need to know.” She then celebrated the team’s internalization of a core company value.

The other major lesson I took from her story was this: here is a safe culture, where the values, not positions of authority prevail. Call the CEO by her first name. Tell her no. Remind her of the company values. Imagine if we all owned our organization’s values like that!

So, you Michiganians out there: own a greater Michigan, a reinvented, revitalized Michigan, where management and labor are no longer a division but a unified force competing together in a tough economy. I say, wherever you are in the ranks: Own your corporate culture. Lead . . . to help information flow, to generate learning, to seek continuous improvement. And in that way . . .

Lead with your best self,

Dan Mulhern