The film, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” tells the story of a journalist writing a profile of children’s television icon Fred Rogers. One key point of the film is that Fred Rogers was not a saintly, “perfect” person. He worked hard to live up to the values and integrity he aspired to. In other words, he was all too human, but he kept working to become a better human being every day.
That idea of always working to become more like the values you claim to hold dear applies in any walk of life… but is especially important for small ad agency owners and managers. A strong, well-aligned agency culture is based on shared values. It is all too easy to claim values that our inherent biases, habits and behaviors contradict. And when that happens, the people who work for us can lose faith in those claimed values, and instead imitate the biases and bad behaviors you don’t want to see in your agency. That can lead to poor account service, internal employee conflicts, and loss of good people.
This is not to say that ad agency leaders must behave like the on-screen version of Fred Rogers. It does mean that you must be mindful of your actions, words and behaviors, be prepared to hear criticism, and work to be better in the future. Your sincere efforts to live up to your stated values, and the agency’s values, will help build trust among your team, and lead them to aspire to be better, too.
“Once we realize that we all have blind spots, then living our values — individually or as a company — becomes a life’s work, “ says Elizabeth Doty, Founder of the consultancy Leadership Momentum. “Integrity is not a static state. It’s a dynamic commitment to learning, and it requires that leaders understand how their actions, and those of their company, are affecting employees, customers, investors, and the world. In other words, it requires that leaders continually look with fresh eyes for where there is more work to be done.”
Ways in Which We Hamper Values Alignment
Ideals vs. norms – Many of the brand values we claim are more aspirational than reality (we’re not there yet, so this is what we’re aiming for). Reality is your “norms,” your actual behaviors, the values you practice in the real world. Getting from norms to your ideals is hard work.
Leaders must consistently emulate their claimed values to help employees find their own routes to living those values. This leadership also signals to newcomers and outsiders that you are committed to those values, not just mouthing the words.
Bounded ethicality: Our unconscious biases influence us in ways we may not even be aware of, or become aware of only after a making a decision, action or statement. Decisions about how we should act are often limited by behavioral shortcuts and external conditions; for instance, people tend to conform to the actions of those around us, which can make doing what we know to be “the right thing” much more difficult.
If an agency leader is careless, or insufficiently aware of internal biases, the impact of outside influences and even their own agency cultures, the leader can quickly stray from claimed values. That brings us back to mindfulness. Leaders must learn to listen to themselves as well as to what others say in response. They also need to be more thoughtful about what they say and how they choose to say it. Finally, we must all try to recognize when outside pressures may be steering us to make choices that undermine our claimed values.
Effects of leaders’ compartmentalization: One area of values alignment that gives us all problems is failing to consider the impacts of decisions across all areas of our organizations. We are all busy, with plenty of balls in the air at any given moment. That can mean we make snap decisions instead of considering all of the consequences. Yes, sometimes we need to decide quickly to keep things moving forward. But if we take time to be more thoughtful about changes when we can take the time, we should also improve at making good decisions when pressed for time. It’s about forming good decision-making habits so making values-aligned choices becomes almost second nature.
Related areas include committing to ambitious goals without considering all the functions needing alignment; and failing to communicate in advance of difficult changes. All of these can be perceived by employees as signs of bad faith—you are not living up to claimed values. When leaders are “all talk and no walk,” employees stop believing in almost everything you say. That can lead to cynicism, disengaged employees and eventually loss of good people who just want to work somewhere that makes them feel happy and fulfilled.
Communicating values: Sometimes, people need to start to believe in your values and purpose before they can fully embrace those values as their own. That requires leaders to not just demonstrate their own commitment, but to repeatedly reinforce those values by restating them at every opportunity, until the message “sticks.”
Microsoft turned around their internal culture—and their business growth—under new CEO Satya Nadella by focusing on culture. He adopted a new corporate mission: “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” This was a profound shift from the old Steve Ballmer-led culture of cutthroat internal competition with an emphasis on new products and sales quotas. Nadella repeated the mission every time he got a chance (opening with it at some 300+ events since its first announcement), and then made changes to encourage that mindset in all 144,000 Microsoft employees. The focus became learning and growth with employees at the heart of it all.
Steps You Can Take to Grow into Your Values
If being a values-focused agency is one of your goals, there are steps you can take to help you and your team:
- Think of values as a growth area. Small mistakes can be forgiven if you act to improve, to raise yourself to a higher standard.
- Recognize the same weaknesses in others, and compassionately act to help them acknowledge errors and change for the better.
- Strive to align systems and processes with values. Values aren’t just a poster on the wall. Consider how to apply those values throughout your entire organization.
- Recognize the people and teams who become your values leaders. Make sure everyone sees the rewards and recognition, so they strive to join that club.
Remember to hire with values in mind as well. When your people share similar values (and the sense of purpose and cohesion that brings), the easier it will be to steer the entire agency—yourself included—toward being the organization you aspire to be.