Leading with value Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2008

How do you align the viewpoints of 39,267 people toward a common goal? Ask Michael Drake, and he’ll tell you it all comes down to values.

In 2005, when he took over as chancellor of the University of California, Irvine — the third-largest employer in Orange County, with an annual budget of $1.5 billion — he realized he couldn’t just dictate his vision of the school to its 27,000 students and 12,267 faculty and staff. Instead, by using feedback from university constituents and by looking back on the values that had served him previously, he developed a set of core values to guide his decision-making.

By creating a description of the ideal person who would encompass the essence of the university, Drake settled on a number of values to present to key stakeholders in speeches and during meetings. He then gauged their reactions, made modifications and, with his management team, identified the seven values that have since guided the campus community.

Smart Business spoke with Drake about how to define the labels for your organization’s values and why you should wear them like an old suit.

Get feedback. It’s always important to elicit feedback for a couple of reasons. One, none of us knows everything. You can always learn more from others.

Sometimes, the way that you or I might describe something makes sense to us, but it does-n’t translate well to other people you’re speaking with. You can develop these values in a quiet, meditative space, but you have to take them on the road in speeches or in meetings or in other things.

At my first freshman convocation, I used these as themes, and then I would hear and feel how they would resonate with the audience or help us with the message or describe the kinds of behaviors that we were interested in.

Getting feedback from people you work with on which ones are very helpful, which ones are useful, which ones work, and places where you have to modify those things are critically important.

We did that at the beginning and refined and modified things. These are not the laws of the universe. One needs to feel free to add or subtract or modify or tune as you learn more or as you evolve forward. You want to be consistent and be true to the values, but they’re not rigid, immutable laws that couldn’t be improved.

Wear your values like an old suit. A professor of mine years ago quoted someone that said, ‘You should wear your traditions like an old suit of clothes rather than like a suit of armor.’

That means you want to be consistent, you want to understand where you’re coming from, you want to continue on that pathway, but you don’t want to be so rigid that you continue on the pathway even if it leads you in the wrong direction.

The more carefully worked out and the more thoroughly vetted the values are, the less frequently you would need to change them. If you find that you’re changing your values frequently, you really don’t have the right ones. They really ought to guide you rather than you guiding them.

I always want to hold out the potential for improving or refining or learning. We haven’t really changed ours much. That’s the way they should be.

We’ll have an issue that would come up, and I would say, ‘OK, if the values are right, then I ought to be able to take the values, apply them to this particular issue, and it should fit.’

Over and over again, I found that I didn’t have to change or modify or eliminate or add values. We just needed to make sure that we stayed true to the ones that we had already emphasized. That really helped us get through those situations. It was kind of reinforcing over and over again. Then, if we had things that weren’t working so well, it’s worked to kind of go back and say, ‘Where did we deviate, or how could we have followed the values more accurately?’

Don’t get too specific when labeling. You can use lots of different words to describe what might fit into a particular category.

We collapsed synonyms, so that the values are categorical. We have integrity or veracity or honesty — those are all sort of wrapped into one category of telling the truth. We have empathy and compassion and sensitivity, and those are wrapped into the one that we call empathy.

We would get different words that described one category of value, and we just settled on a word that exemplified that category of behaviors, rather than be too nitpicky about using every single word that might be a synonym.

That helps as well to sort of think of them as zones. Respect, for example, is a zonal term rather than a precise, specific thing. It’s a series of ways to behave and be feeling.

Let the values guide your behavior. One of the things about the values is that they ought to guide the behavior of the leader.

The leader ought to exemplify those values in a way that he or she conducts business in the enterprise and the way that people are rewarded in the enterprise, and the way that people are counseled or redirected in the enterprise. They need to be living, guiding principles that work for you. The leader has to be the best exemplar of them. You can’t say, ‘I value appreciation and tolerance,’ and be intolerant at all.

The values really have to be your guiding principles as you use them to help you guide the organization.

HOW TO REACH: University of California, Irvine, (949) 824-5011 or www.uci.edu