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Promoting values in a company seems pointless to me. Espousing ‘integrity’ or ‘empathy’ to build a company culture is a bit like nailing jelly to the wall: trying to achieve the impossible – no-one can define or measure it.

At an individual level values begin to take meaning. For example, the James Comey technique of pairing values (he’s the FBI Director sacked by Trump, and author of ‘A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership’). His theory on leadership is that one value alone lacks substance but has strength if balanced with an opposing other. In his book he defines three pairs; I’ve tested these with leaders since then and have added the number 4. below. Great leaders are:

1.   people of integrity, and decency;

2.   confident enough to be humble (there are exceptions to this);

3.   both kind, and tough;

4.   transparent, and authentic.

But you can’t build a company culture on simply those four (admirable) leadership qualities.

Delivering measurable results, however, can be achieved by demanding certain behaviours. In our company, where we work to build clients’ reputations and drive change, we’ve defined four:

1.   Excellence

2.   Strong & Honest Relationships

3.   Creativity

4.   Nimbleness.


1.   Excellence

Easily said, hard to do. For instance:

  • Most companies employ people to ‘fill a role’ – someone leaves and they quickly scout about to find the best person available. It would be different if they waited, until they found an excellent person. It’s the Jim Collins ‘Good to Great’ approach to building companies. There may be short-term pain, but with long-term gain.
  • Most employees would work differently if the demanded outcome was excellence.
  • In many professional services there is a mantra that clients only get what they pay for; fit the project to the budget and when the money runs out the work stops. Or price projects to be competitive. In a workplace that demands excellence, the work gets done despite the budget; the discipline is to quote appropriately to start with.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t tough decisions: if a document is needed by COB, then excellence requires that the editing stops on deadline; in TV journalism for instance there is no point in making one last phonecall if the program has a black hole where your story was meant to be. The excellence is in planning and executing on the timeline.

Where excellence is demanded and achieved, a solid reputation follows. But that alone is not enough.

2.   Strong and Honest relationships

This is the hardest behaviour, and the most rewarding. How often have you held back on telling the truth? We all do it: a flawed trait.

In an honest conversation if a person asks a question, an honest answer is given. Sometimes this is difficult because the answer is confronting, but finding a way of being honest in these situation leads to the ideal relationship: a strong and honest one. And fake questions soon stop if honest answers are always given.

Susan Scott wrote in her book ‘Fierce Conversations’ that a relationship is simply built on a succession of conversations, and each conversation (or interaction by email, phone, etc) leaves a tail, like Halley’s Comet. It can be a good or bad tail, often long remembered.

A strong and honest conversation also demands the art of listening. Stephen Covey famously wrote ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood’. Have you noticed in meetings that some people rush to make their point early? Early point scoring is silly, I think, as the decisions are made at the end of the meeting. Strategic, carefully chosen input after listening to all the arguments and understanding the dynamics of the room is more valuable, for everyone.

Among consultancies, there is pressure to tell clients what they want to hear. That is flawed. A client’s opinion of us goes up is we find a way to tell the unpalatable truth, even when we lose the job. A values-driven client, the one we want, will bend to our recommendation if it fits the company’s objectives.

3.   Creativity

Some people are more creative than others, but I think everyone can learn to be creative. When I started out in journalism, my most valuable mentor said to me “Your story ideas are hopeless” and demanded that I come to him with three good ideas every morning. It was tough love, but starting that day, for 30 years of journalism, I came to work with better, stronger ideas.

I support people who find their creative niche, and then go for it.

There is an argument about the merits of hard work versus creative work. I think both: work hard, creatively. My most creative time is early, so I start at 5am, and use the early morning, especially when there is a beautiful sunrise, to set-up the rest of the day.

4.   Nimbleness

These days it is not an option, but nimbleness needs to be stated because many people struggle with change. In the Corporate Affairs sand-pit I play in – media, politics, community expectations and how they interact – the dynamics change constantly. Our main objectives may stay the same, but how we achieve them are fluid.