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Corporate Cultures Built on Values and People

By: Gayle Watson, VP People Ink

In today’s troubled times, what distinguishes successful companies from those that fail? According to Jim Collins, author of Built to Last, Good to Great, and How the Mighty Fall, companies that win during challenging times have core values, stick to those values, and hire the best people. Corporate values have never been more important in our time. We are reminded every day in the headlines about greed and corruption. I can’t help but wonder, how will corporations regain customer loyalty and trust? As we emerge from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, I believe we are at a tipping point. Now is the time for values to be at the front and center of every organization’s strategy.

Leading a corporate culture based on values is easier said than done. The most successful organizations today have leaders who understand that they are responsible for the cultures of the organizations. They understand that the success of the organization depends completely upon the people. And they understand that success is about creating a place where people are inspired to perform at their highest levels.

Here are some examples of a few great leaders who are focused on creating cultures built on values and putting people first:

Starbucks’ CEO, Howard Schultz“We had to own our mistakes…the biggest challenge was to preserve our values, culture and guiding principles.”

Schultz made this remark in an interview with Harvard Business Review earlier this earlier this year. When Schultz stepped down as CEO of Starbucks in 2000, the company was on a steady growth path as worldwide recognized brand. In the next eight years, Starbucks suffered from the economy and some strategic mistakes. Schultz returned as CEO in 2008. Now under his leadership, and with a renewed commitment to values, people and culture, Starbucks has turned around.

Virgin’s CEO, Sir Richard Branson“Virgin will go on beyond me…it can’t just be me that sets the culture when we recruit people. Virgin’s people culture is now self-fulfilling…it will go on way beyond me.”

In an interview with HR Magazine in July this year, the flamboyant CEO, Richard Branson talked about his style of leadership at Virgin. While the culture at Virgin is called by some the “cult of Branson,” its CEO is keenly aware that the success of Virgin depends on its people. With a slightly irreverent view of HR, Branson explains that the brand values are very important, as well as selecting people who share those values.

Zappos’ CEO, Tony Hsieh“Your culture is your brand. We wanted a list of committable core values that we were willing to hire and fire on.”

One of the youngest and newest CEO’s to lead a high performing organization is Zappos’ Tony Hsieh. In a recent blog post on Harvard Business Review, Hsieh talks about how Zappos infuses culture using core values. Not only is Tony committed to leading his organization based on values, he has developed a vision that links profits, passion and purpose. He has created the opportunity for employees to engage in a higher purpose, Delivering Happiness, the subject of his NYT bestselling book by the same name.

P&G’s COO, Bob McDonald“The true test of a leader’s character isn’t what happens in an organization when you’re there, but when you’re not there.”

In a lecture given at MIT Sloan School of Management, COO Robert McDonald, shares how 20 years of leadership experience at Proctor & Gamble has contributed to his belief in a values-based leadership approach. Like Hsieh, McDonald believes that leading a life driven by purpose is more meaningful and rewarding than merely achieving goals. He believes it’s about the people and building sufficient capability, so the organization will survive beyond a leader.

David Neeleman, founding JetBlue CEO“Take care of your people first, then customers will follow.”

Over ten years ago, David Neeleman left Southwest Airlines to start up JetBlue Airways, based out of New York City. At that time, he called Ann Rhoades, the former Chief People Officer at Southwest and President of People Ink, to join him on the JetBlue founding executive team. His vision was to “Bring humanity back air travel.” In a lecture in 2003 at Stanford University, Neeleman describes how the JetBlue leadership team established organizational values and made a commitment to “take care of our people.” Today these core values remain an integral part of JetBlue’s continuing success.

These are only a few of the leaders who are committed to creating and leading values-centric cultures. I’d like to know who else you would put on this list of great leaders who lead with values.

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