Putting Core Values into Action

In Traction, Gino Wickman pulls the following Southwest Airlines anecdote

In the company’s book […] is a story about a woman who sent Southwest a complaint letter after every flight she took. She would complain about problems such as the lack of assigned seating, the lack of a first-class section, the lack of meals, the flight attendants’ uniforms, and the casual atmosphere. According to the book, one of the letters made it up to the desk of then-CEO Herb Kelleher. It took him 60 seconds to write back the following note: “Dear Mrs. Crabapple, we will miss you. Love, Herb.”

The story highlights how easily the CEO was able to make a quick decision to lose this customer whose expectations were not aligned with Southwest’s core values.

It’s been interesting to read how Wickman applies core values in his business methodologies, using them in everything from establishing a sales and marketing strategy, evaluating the performance of teams, hiring new folks, and guiding high-level leadership direction. These are all things that Kim has been advocating for with us the past year.

More efficient criticism

Doc and I have been working together for about 8 years. In that time, we have had a lot of difficult conversations, particularly ones where one of us is asked to review the other’s work.

The conversations typically take a turn when I say “That doesn’t look quite right”. No matter how hard I would try to choose language that isn’t inflammatory, I’d often get the impression that Doc would hear “What you have done is wrong”, or even worse “You are wrong and I am blaming you for being wrong”.

My internal response to this was always something along the lines of “but I’m only saying this so that the work is right. I just want the work to be right, and if it’s right, we both benefit”.

I think there will always be an emotional response in having one’s work evaluated by a peer, but if the emotional response takes energy away from creativity and productivity, then nobody wins. Building up trust to avoid these scenarios is important. Equally important is having effective, objective conversations.

During this past summer, there were a number of times where Doc asked for my feedback on work he had produced. Armed with our core values, he and I were able to take a different approach to joint criticism.

Firstly, our core values weren’t values that I was applying independently. They are shared values that he and I worked on and discovered, refined and adopted together. We’re aligned in wanting to stick to them.

Secondly, in as much as they can be, the question is now objective rather than subjective. We were able to move from “This isn’t right” to “Does this meet our standards of excellence?” “Does it hold up to our measure of integrity?” “Does it elicit delight?”. These are much easier questions to ask, and if the answer to any of those was no, we could jointly evaluate the work through that lens.

Lastly, for future work, the appraisal becomes transparent. In the past, I always got the sense that my criticisms were obvious, and easy to anticipate, but we kept having the same awkward conversations. Recently, though, I’ve needed to provide much less critical feedback. This is because our values are written down. They’re clear. When the values are defined up front, there’s no need to second-guess.

More effective triage

A recent issue that arose on this blog provided another opportunity to apply our core values to a potentially difficult situation.

One of our readers took exception to part of a post we published. It wasn’t controversial or offensive, but it wasn’t quite right. I pulled the post while we discussed it internally.

The discussion, which could have been tense and antagonistic, was actually quite simple and productive. We went through the post, established where and how parts of it didn’t meet the standards that our core values implied. Again, it was simply a shared lens that we were able to apply.

On the back of the discussion, it was easy to define some next-step actions and suggestions for a policy to put in place to avoid similar issues in future.

The same three principles were at play. This wasn’t me being critical, it was simply applying our shared, adopted core values. The discussion was objective rather than subjective, and the whole triage process was transparent and not seemingly subject to whim and fancy.

Simple, but effective

Here at Tito we have become very familiar with asking the question “Does this align with our core values?”. It’s a simple, quick test that, at the micro-level at least, creates what every business needs: alignment.

Having explicit, well-defined values leads to a situation where there are fewer surprises if the response to certain actions is criticism.

Conversely, and more importantly, it leads to a constant reinforcement of the right actions. Folks have an objective lens with which to evaluate their own work.

Based on our limited but positive experience this year, my expectation is that as we work through more examples and have more and more objective conversations, doing the rightwork that aligns with our core values will seem so normal that anything that doesn’t align will stick out. And when it does, we will have open, honest and transparent conversations about correcting course.