Align leadership decisions with your values (Guest commentary)

Use 'internal compass' to guide decision-making

James Burke was the chief executive officer of Johnson & Johnson in the 1980s during Tylenol’s biggest crisis to date. When contaminated Tylenol made it on to store shelves in Chicago, Burke insisted on pulling the product from every shelf in the country to ensure the public’s safety. It was a very expensive decision but, in the long run, it led to high praise and increased levels of trust for Johnson & Johnson because the company did the right thing.

While the easier, less expensive decision would have been to just pull the product from Chicago stores, or perhaps statewide, it wasn’t true to Burke’s values.

Everyone has a built-in compass that offers values for decision-making. These evolved out of the messages we received from parents and other influencers, and tend to sound like, “Mind your Ps and Qs” and “Say please and thank you.” Just as a mechanical compass shows magnetic north, an internal compass shows “magnetic north values” that should be considered whenever you have crucial choices to make.

Forks in the business road present themselves frequently and the choices you make indicate whether you are using magnetic north values consistently or ignoring them.

Effective leaders rely upon this internal compass to guide their choices in everyday life, which increases trust among followers.

There are five crucial leadership choices observed by followers everyday.

How you set the mood: The mood you choose to display when you arrive each morning to meet and greet staff is the first observable behaviour noticed. Leaders often underestimate the significance of these moments, but followers tend to take a “reading” from the leader’s mood and internalize it. It’s quite natural for people to make assumptions about the company’s health and future based on the climate created by the mood of the leader. On any given day, the prospect of smooth sailing or impending doom is implied by the facial expressions of a leader. The mood of the leader becomes the mood of the group and ripples throughout an organization like electricity — the mood of the group never exceeds the mood of the leader.

For this reason, a leader must be a good actor, at least to the point of projecting hope and optimism. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a bad day, but if you expect your followers to work with hope and optimism, you must display emotions when you walk through the door.

How you respond to challenges: Your demeanour when reacting to business challenges is another indication of your commitment to magnetic north. A calm tone in your voice says, “I’m confident we can handle this situation” whereas panic in your voice says, “I’m threatened by this and you should be, too.” When a crisis or challenge hits the team, all eyes will look to you for a reaction. It’s relatively easy to voice confidence in the workforce when things run smoothly, but when things are under attack be sure to reflect a calm resolve that says, “I believe in you and our ability to solve this issue.” All leaders expect their followers to be conscientious problem solvers, so be sure to send that message when the seas are rough as well as smooth.

How you initiate change: How you initiate change within the organization is critical to its success. While change is inevitable, and creating change is part of your job description, the choices you make regarding how and when speak volumes about your magnetic north. Followers expect leaders to understand the implications, and the difficulty, of adjusting to change. As a leader, you most likely wrestle with the anxiety of change weeks ahead of its announcement. Some leaders forget their own anxiety and, when it’s time to implement change, dump the whole truckload of new expectations without regard to the team. The delivery style of any change telegraphs the level of empathy you have for the people who must adjust quickly to the change. Share your understanding of the discomfort created by this change and break down new procedures into small bites.

How you judge performances: How you react to great performances and sub-par performances indicates your belief about your coaching and your people. When it comes to praise, followers watch for consistency. Do top performances receive equal recognition, regardless of the performer? When a performance does not meet standards, is coaching or mentoring readily available? Followers want to know you can separate the “deed” from the “doer” and accept each individual for what she accomplishes without personalizing it. Performances should be measured against the agreed-upon standards. This process will be fair if your magnetic north includes a precise and clear definition of what excellence looks like.

How you treat customers: Nothing speaks louder to followers than how leaders treat customers. How you react to customers shows everyone how it should be done. Your true magnetic north is exposed when customers are involved. Your values in terms of service, product value, profit and goodwill are obvious to your followers as they watch you react to both the easy customers and the tougher ones. Make consistent choices and set an example that will be duplicated.

Acting as a person of conviction, knowing your values and honouring your compass, is the first sign of effective leadership. It means you’ve decided what kind of person you want to be, and you’ve taken a stand because you know what’s truly important to you and those you represent.

David Benzel is the Groveland, Fla.-based author of Chump to Champ: How to be Truly Outstanding at Something You Love and founder of Winning Ways, a company that helps organizations with leadership and creating peak performance. He can be reached at (800) 616-1193 or [email protected].

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