Core Values: Walk the Talk

Core Values: Walk the Talk

Let’s take a moment to consider and applaud these two admirable core values of a very well- known multinational corporation.

Our everyday actions are based upon an internally-consistent framework of principles and values. We understand that integrity is more than just a word … it is a daily practice.

Trust is a relationship of reliance. Our employees, our clients and their clients rely on us to comply with all policies, laws and ethical/professional codes in the performance of our work; and we consistently honor that reliance.

The company? Volkswagen.

My first car was a beat up, used VW Beetle. In spite of its sorry state, it was a reliable car for driving around the dirt roads of Vermont and braving the spring mud seasons and winter blizzards. It finally met its match one night when a deer jumped out of the woods and landed right on top of the hood and windshield. While the car was a goner, the deer continued on its way.

I was sorry to see my trusty VW bite the dust. Cheap to run, easy to fix, fun to drive. And then there was that special joy I felt about it as my first car. I had a special place in my heart for VW.

On September 18th Volkswagen’s stock price was 162.40.  On September 25th, it was 107.30. Their reputation has been destroyed. The lawsuits will be raining down. The company will likely be paying immense fines. They’re under criminal investigation in several countries. Their loyal customers have been duped. CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned.

Soon after the debacle began, Winterkorn said he was “deeply sorry.” He followed this up by sharing that “we do not and will not tolerate violations of any kind of our internal rules or the law.” Ah, the talk about those core values, so clearly at odds with the walk.

The Board praised Winterkorn for his “invaluable contributions” and added that he was responsible for the company’s “rise to a global company.” Not a word about how he was also responsible for the disaster that is bringing the company to its knees and which has destroyed billions and billions of dollars of shareholder value.

One more quote caught my attention. According to Winterkorn he resigned for the good of the company, professing, “I am not aware of any wrongdoing on my part.” He certainly took credit for VW becoming the biggest car company in the world. But this years long lying to the regulators of numerous countries, this pumping 40 times the pollution allowed per car in the US into the atmosphere, this degradation of the health of people from breathing these banned and deadly gasses…not his fault.

Winterkorn was known for his autocratic style coupled with his engineer’s eye for detail. He was considered someone who was on top of everything. While I certainly can’t claim that he knew about his company’s criminal doings, with his engineer’s eye and autocratic style it does make you wonder. He oversaw R&D and ran the Volkswagen brand when the deception first took place. What I do know is that he now joins the ranks of other discredited executives felled by a style that builds a culture where anything goes as long as it brings in more sales.

It’s easy to hire consultants to help you create some nice sounding Core Values. The consultants ensure the words have strong emotional appeal in order to inspire commitments to do the right thing, and guarantees of ethical action. The PR people then take over to widely publicize the Core Values list so that the company looks especially noble. All too often however, everyone in the company knows the real Core Values are success and profit by any means necessary.

Creating the words is easy, living the concepts is hard. It only works when those at the top truly believe in the Core Values as the guiding principles for all actions…and then abide by them, always. The leaders set the culture that others follow, for better or worse. Your actions not your words show the way and build the legacy you’re ultimately known for. Winterkorn…what’s the legacy he leaves behind?

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Talk…or Communicate

Just about everyone knows how to talk. Far fewer know how to communicate. All too many of our leaders have this problem: great talkers…not so good communicators. The ability to not only talk but also communicate is such an unusual trait that one of the highest accolades earned by President Reagan was that he was “The Great Communicator.”

Talking is not communicating. Talking is using words to convey messages or feelings. Communicating, on the other hand, is using words, emotions, and gestures in such a way that the listener can fully understand what the words mean at a surface level while internalizing the underlying message you’re expressing.

Communicating effectively is hard to do. All too often words flow out of our mouths without any awareness of what we’re saying and little consideration of the words’ impact. The words go forth but the message is left behind. How often have you given someone what you considered a clear directive to prepare a brief report on something and they proudly presented you with a 200 page document instead?

Effective communication requires you to be in the moment. Great communicators pay complete attention to the words they’re speaking while continually observing and calibrating the response they’re receiving. They’re conscious at every moment of their thoughts and feelings and are clear about what they’re trying to express and the way they want it perceived. They’re not multitasking – not texting, looking around for someone more interesting, or thinking about dinner – while speaking. Being in the moment and observing closely allows them to adjust their message and weave new words and ideas into their communication as they notice the impact their words are having.

Effective communication requires suspending judgement and listening with an open mind to the words you hear in response to your own.

Effective communication allows you to stay true to your message while being flexible in how you express it as you hear, respect, and even consider ideas you disagree with. Having strong beliefs and living by them does not mean shutting out everything that is at odds with your thinking. Our thinking and our words must evolve as we meet new people with different ideas and gather more information, and as the conditions around us change.

Effective communication is, most importantly, accepting responsibility. It’s your job to make sure you’re making yourself clear, not the listener’s responsibility to figure out what you’re trying to say. As John Grinder, co-founder of NLP, once said to me, “communication is the response you get.”



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