Challenging times put values to the test

Jun 08, 2020

It’s important to revisit your purpose and values statements from time to time to make sure they still hold true for your firm.

One of the only things we can rely on when everything we know is changing so fast is that what served us well in the past might not necessarily carry us confidently into the future.

Last year our company was impacted by a serious event that caused us all to scrutinize our culture and our purpose. We realized that our stated values had grown stale and that our mission and purpose had evolved in response to a rapidly changing market environment.

We saw this as an opportunity to focus on something positive that would engage people across the organization and help with the healing process.

As with most companies that have been around for some time, it’s not the first time we’ve revisited our purpose and values statements. Last time we did this we elected a small group of senior management and key stakeholders, shut ourselves in a room, and, through a semi-facilitated process of review, emerged with some tweaked wording and a sense that everything still held true.

Ivory tower versus collective wisdom. This hierarchical approach worked just fine in a time when processes and outcomes were fairly predictable and direction could be set from the top down with a degree of confidence. In today’s climate, where projects are highly complex, schedules are compressed, technology transforms processes from one day to the next, and external factors such as climate and health play an ever greater role in our built environment – it was clear that we needed a different approach.

We are very clear in our understanding that the people who deliver our projects, support our IT infrastructure, manage our billing, protect our IP, tell our story, and keep the kitchen fridge stocked are the ones who truly understand what it takes to run this business. Most importantly, they get to choose who they work for, so if they choose to work with us it’s because we share a common purpose and values. The question wasn’t what to do, but rather how to democratize the process.

A few years ago we’d made changes to significantly broaden stakeholder input into our business planning processes. Building on this we invited about 65 people from different disciplines, tenure, and years of experience from across the organization (field and office) to participate in a facilitated process to review our current value statements.

We didn’t assign groups, we simply allowed individuals to choose the value most important to them. Without any organization, each group attracted diverse individuals. Everyone spoke about what came to mind, testing the validity of each value, and capturing their thoughts on paper before reporting out to the larger group. I was stunned by the wide variety of interpretations of each value. The same words meant radically different things to different people.

A life of its own. The initiative took on a life of its own leading to three rounds of continued refinement. It takes work to bring people together to work on an initiative that doesn’t draw a tangible line to revenue generation. It is testament to the importance of values in an organization that people kept showing up to bake the cake. But you do reach a point of diminishing returns. Having four people debate three words stops being useful, however well-intentioned. It was time to stop meeting.

At this point we needed to engage people who know our corporate voice to craft the final language that would embody our newly clarified values. This is when we hit the next unanticipated hurdle. The people we asked to help with this effort had not all participated in the original discussions. This led to more questioning and testing. As frustrating as it was to see the process drag on longer, the end result was far greater alignment and buy-in across the board.

Reaching a decision. What I learned from the whole process is that there’s a time and place to tap into an organization’s collective wisdom, and there are times when it’s not the right tool for the job. To examine the validity and resonance of our values, broad stakeholder engagement, although at times unwieldy, led to a far better understanding of what’s important and greater alignment across the firm.

However, someone had to make the final call. For some people this was a very emotional process and not everyone can have the exact wording they propose. In the end the people who made the final call were the ones who have the biggest stake in communicating and conveying the meaning behind our values: our head of HR and our head of marketing. I facilitated the discussion, but the final version is the result of their agreement.

Leadership is a team sport. Hard on the heels of this process came the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. We needed to convene an Emergency Response Task Force as a priority and put it in place immediately. This was a focused task force of key specialists dealing with daily decisions versus a larger stakeholder group and specifically avoided duplication of executive committee members. Two years ago I’d have immediately put myself on it. However, the process of rethinking our values taught me that our company has a deep bench of leaders that are ready to take on any challenge and that the next generation needs to be given the chance to step up. One of the essential goals of the Task Force is to anticipate how work will be different when the immediate emergency is past and to think about a model for continuity from today into coming back online having learned some hard lessons. Our next generation of leaders will be living with the consequences of today’s actions for years to come, they need to be part of the solution.

I am so very proud of how well our company has navigated this fluid situation. Everyone is thoughtful, measured, passionate, and they care deeply about every decision we are having to make. Our value of “Lead with Integrity” with the support phrase, “the right path is not always the easiest route” is certainly being put to the test. Leadership is a team sport and I’m glad to be part of this team, continuously learning.

Ted Herb joined GLY in 1987 as a project engineer, rising to vice president of operations by 2008, and has served as president since 2016. Today as both president and CEO, he brings a deep understanding of the diverse skills and perspectives that contribute to successful project delivery at every level within the general construction industry. In addition to leading numerous projects that help to shape the story of the city of Bellevue’s growth, including Lincoln Square real estate development projects and Overlake Hospital’s expansions, he has played a pivotal role in shaping the company’s cultural focus on safety and continuous improvement. Ted also honors GLY’s legacy of service through his involvement with a number of community organizations including the Overlake Medical Center Foundation Board and Path with Art.

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