The small, still voice in your business
The difference between all outcomes of success and failure boils down to decisions made.
Business owners, leaders and managers make high-impact decisions all day long, often on autopilot, occasionally after long contemplation.
Decisions are made all the more difficult when the small, quiet voice in your business cannot be heard.
Let’s say you are considering getting married. You are weighing up your options or judging a potential life partner. You may think about personality, lifestyle, compatibility, looks, wealth and so forth. And eventually make a decision based on this evaluation.
But if you should ‘consult’ your values before you make a decision, you would ask yourself whether you believe in the institution of marriage at all and/or what that institution means to you.
If it is mere social convention, and failure has no real consequence that cannot be mitigated by contract, then the decision can be reduced to mere economics. So what if you prove not be compatible, or if a certain lifestyle consideration eventually proves to be annoying? Just get a divorce and move on. But if marriage is sacrosanct, and it means to you that you are bound for life, then the considerations carry vastly different import.
That is, before you decide who you want to marry, ask yourself what value the institution of marriage holds for you.
In business, people give that voice different names: culture, values, brand or even vision. No matter what we call it, it is merely the conscience of your business that guides every decision. Just like human beings subject decisions to their own conscience, so too does any business.
This sounds rather academic or philosophical, but it couldn’t be more pragmatic and relevant.
My partner and I own a cafe. One of the decisions we needed to make is whether we wanted to change how/if we provide plastic straws. There are many economic and logistical considerations related to the various options, and it is a small but consequential decision.
Instead of getting bogged down in a long list of pros and cons, I listen to small still voice of our values: We believe that it is not up to us to make people behave in a certain way or to impose our views on them. As much as we want people to believe the same as we do, we are philosophically inclined towards a pragmatic libertarianism. People should make their own choices, and we won’t impose our views on them at their expense.
Given what we believe, the decision now becomes simple. We won’t force our customer to pay for a paper straw and we won’t force them to buy a glass straw of their own. We will offer them all the options, but allow them to make the decision.
If your values are clear and principled, then decisions become a lot easier. In fact, decisions tend to make themselves.
There are many examples of organisations flailing around, trying to ride a wave of public opinion, instead of relying on the rock of their culture.
How does a news organisation espouse freedom of speech, and defenestrate a journalist for speaking anything that is opposite the prevailing narrative?
How does an airline preach inclusion, by excluding people who share different beliefs?
How do you proclaim equality and enforce quotas?
These are some of the typical logical conundrums organisations run up against when they don’t have a bedrock of values that can serve as their north star in making everyday decisions.
Our human conscience resides in our minds, so it is easy to access. It is rather more difficult to in an organisation. When companies resort to putting posters on the walls of the staff rooms, they have admitted defeat.
If a company aims to firstly survive and then prosper, it will be because collectively the organisation makes mostly ‘right’ decisions. This will happen if the culture - the small, still voice - is strong.
Therefore, the first job of the leader is to build and maintain a powerful culture that becomes the guiding force of all the small decisions that over time steer the company towards its vision. The challenge is that a culture gets created in any event; whether the leader(s) do this consciously and by design, or simply by default.
That is why axioms like these prevail:
What gets measured gets done
The standard you walk past is the standard you accept
It is difficult, it is relentless and it largely unrecognised and even thankless. The rewards for getting it right are indirect and difficult to measure.
Culture is the corporate conscience and its cultivation is the leadership imperative.