Ask Harry #13: What should I do when the values and culture of my company are at odds with my values?

My Kellogg students and participants in the Allen Center executive programs will often ask me, “Harry, I have read all three of your books, and I strongly agree with your values-based leadership principles. However, the values and culture of my company are totally at odds with my values. What do you recommend I do?”

My first recommendation is to make sure you really understand your VALUES. That may sound obvious, but it is easy to confuse values and preferences. For example, I may request my team to show up on time and treat one another respectfully. If someone on the team doesn’t comply, I will let them know that is an issue and there will be consequences, but I probably wouldn’t fire the person. I think of this request as a preference. However, I believe values are very different than preferences. Values have two unique characteristics: (1) they will not be compromised; and (2) they are not negotiable. Why? Well, if you are willing to compromise or negotiate them, how could they be values?

Okay, so let’s assume you know your values and your company’s behavior is inconsistent with your values. The first impulse will be to immediately leave. However, I suggest two courses of action:

Option #1

Determine whether you think you have the leadership skills to positively improve the values and culture of the organization. If you leave, who in the company will drive the necessary change? As I remind students and executives all the time, if you are looking for “those guys” to create the change, chances are the changes will not occur. However, I encourage you to please take a moment to look in the mirror and remind yourself: “I am one of those guys.” As Gandhi once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” However, I want you to be practical about this option. Do you believe it is possible to change the values and culture of the organization? If you realize that the senior management is entrenched and completely unwilling to change, you must move on to Option #2.

Option #2

Leave the organization because that is the “right thing to do.” By the way, I understand your possible reaction to this option: “Harry, we are in a recession, and it may be difficult to find another job.” Or, “Harry, if I leave this position, I don’t have the savings to support my current lifestyle.” While I am sensitive to these concerns, I do respectfully challenge the assumption. Why did you create a lifestyle that required 100% of your compensation and gave you no flexibility to do what you know you should really do?

On a personal level, I will share with you that Julie and I decided when we started our careers many years ago that creating flexibility in our lives was critical. Therefore, we committed to only spending 50-60% of our annual income. We wanted to make sure that we had the savings that would enable us to “walk away” from any company or position if we believed that was the right thing to do. Yes, that meant we didn’t have the fanciest cars, the biggest house, or the latest gadgets and material possessions. However, the flexibility to respectfully tell people what we believed was the “right thing to do” has made it all worthwhile for us.

In summary, take the time to truly understand your values and live a lifestyle that enables you to do the right thing without the need to compromise your values. It is sometimes not easy, but as we have discussed many times, doing the right thing is what being a “values-based leader” is all about. 😉