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The Value Chain

How to Inspire Employees Sustainably

 /   / 7min read

Rocket launch

Any action to shape the culture & engage employees fails? Productivity drops and employees leave the 'sinking' boat? I don't have a magical solution, but I'd like to take a closer look at a potential cause: lacking vision, mission & purpose. Everyone agrees that this is crucial to engagement but the successful way to get there is a science in itself and the business impact is often ignored. Below, I outline a guide that not only helps with the definitions but also highlights the interaction as well as the usual pitfalls.

Not often there is the opportunity to work on your vision, mission, values and culture. As mentioned in the previous article, such changes have a long-term impact and should be carefully considered. Reasons might be founding a new company or a merger, as currently in our company. In order to avoid unnecessary changes, it is advisable to define the respective aspects wisely and judiciously. As shown below, the alignment of these aspects is critical for the culture, as if this fails, employees, customers and bottom line performance suffer.

Pulling together, but in different directions, is pointless.

To illustrate the significance of alignment, imagine that it is not enough to pull the same string. You also have to pull in the same direction to make progress and move towards a common goal. Let's see how this can be managed by starting with this goal — the vision.

The Vision and How to Get There

Vision and mission are widely used synonymously because they go hand in hand, but in fact, they are quite different. They are both fundamental elements of the culture that permeate the entire organisation. This happens by guiding the norms, processes, decisions and behaviours of the company and its employees; like cornerstones bundled together to a compass. These are usually clearly defined, easy-to-remember short statements that are communicated both internally and externally.

However, the differences are much more crucial. So, the vision is the foundation by describing a future worth striving for. It provides the company with purpose and helps to emotionally affect, bring together and inspire employees. The mission is directly linked to this, defines the most important purpose and outlines how it's intended to get to the vision. Visionary ideas and suitable missions let you stand out from the competition.

Easier said than done. In this case, there is definitely no universal solution but a few thought-provoking impulses. Since both vision and mission should result in faith, loyalty and trust in a certain way, it is important that the management is behind with heart and mind. Visionary leaders are incredibly important for inspiration and engagement but assistance is needed. On the one hand from mid-level management which is often closer to the employees and acts as a gatekeeper. On the other hand, the employees themselves. Make sure there are proper buy-ins and involvement.

Giving someone a purpose is like manifesting that the puzzle cannot be completed without one by spotlighting the respective puzzle piece.

An exemplary process for defining both could look as follows. Initially, the status quo and the actual objective are worked out using focus groups, interviews, brainstorming, and surveys. It is especially important not to exclude any visionary thoughts from the very beginning and to disregard the impossible. The top-level management is faced with the resulting short list of visions which finally leads to the decision. Once the vision has been set the mission can be defined and used as a basis for values, communication, and training; after all, the vision must be lived to become and stay alive. But before focusing on values, there is something even less tangible — the purpose.

Sense of Purpose & Reason for Being

The raison d'être is not really tangible but yet the basis of employee experience and the link between the company and employees. I'm pretty sure you know how satisfying it feels to be part of something bigger and give the best because you want to and not because you are told. Thereby you feel that it is worth spending your time. To be honest, I haven't felt that way in a lot of positions and it definitely makes a huge difference. It boosts drive and endurance even in tough times.

For me, it's incredibly important and vision alone is not enough. I would like to know how I personally can help to achieve this vision together with the rest of the company. You should ask yourself who you are and want to become, what keeps you motivated and caring. This self-perception subconsciously plays a decisive role in the choice of the company and the job. The good news: the company can help to strengthen this sense of purpose and engagement.

Mr. President, I'm helping put a man on the moon. Janitor @ NASA Space Center

Thus, link the goal of the company with the concrete task of a person/team and point out how the work affects reaching the goal. At the same time, the company's purpose should also be respected and reflected in daily decisions. Wondering how to emphasise the purpose of the company? Tell stories about how the company's work has affected a human being or happening. Both aspects are not about stakeholders or profits, but about the impact on the world. In this sense, a company should be primarily excited about being one step closer to a goal rather than about increased sales.

Jenga tower

Beliefs & Behaviour

Company values are another sensitive topic and I am sure that your company has also defined such, even though you may not remember them all. Nevertheless, you might have a few in your mind. I would bet that these are most often rather competencies. Both are confusingly similar: they are called the heart of culture and embody what the company values most. So, where are the differences?

Values are intangible and thus not measurable. They are a guideline for behaviour and mindset to reach the previously defined vision. But it is not about which behaviours are desired, but rather about a guideline based on beliefs and ideals that influences these behaviours. They are often nouns like integrity and authenticity. Competencies go one step further and are a measurable counterpart. They describe the attitude and behaviour that the company wants to see and encourage on a daily basis, like 'lend a hand' or 'be bold'.

Concerning both, there are basically two fatal and still frequent mistakes. First, empty words or buzzwords, defined by leadership only because they think people like to hear them. Employees and customers, however, are not stupid and quickly realise what is going on, which leads to discouragement or undermined credibility and results in resignations. Signs of warning are that employees define their own values to make their work meaningful and purposeful, or they make fun of it. Second, wrapped performance expectations. car2go had defined 'go beyond' which was often mistakenly interpreted as expecting overtime. Such a thing can backfire, even if it was not meant that way.

Well, how to improve it? First of all, it has to be evaluated which long list of values and behaviours fits the vision, mission and existing culture. If possible, all employees should be involved or represented simply because they are the company's greatest asset and their essence has to be reflected; yeah, you have to know your employees, either personally or via analytic tools. Subsequently, it is the task of the C-suite to select and finally define values as well as competencies. In this step, bottom-up meets top-down and transparency is key. Always have a focus on authenticity, not originality. Moreover, do your employees a favour and keep it to a maximum of five (the lower limit of Miller's Law), otherwise, no one can remember them. Ultimately, it's the same as before: it has to be reflected in communication and trainings.

'Do something great' sign

Let Actions Speak

Until now, we have focused on the definition of vision, mission, values and the reason of being, but no real progress has been made. Salesforce's V2MOM model consists of five components (Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, Measures) aimed at achieving a goal. In this context, the third component is of particular importance: concrete actions. All these definitions are meaningless if they are not lived by employees/management and are not applied to daily interactions. The most important thing is that leadership sets a good example and embodies the aspects, otherwise, they become a joke. It's even worse when it's obvious to the public that the values cannot be taken seriously.

Without execution, 'vision' is just another word for hallucination. Mark V. Hurd

Have you noticed how the whole picture slowly evolves? From a goal to actions to reach it, beliefs as guide and competencies as desired behaviours? Much is done with this understanding. Further steps might be to recognise, reward and promote value-conscious actions. Of course, this also requires that the aspects be reflected in performance reviews or that you get rid of employees who work against this harmony. This may sound harsh, but reward alone does not succeed always.

The Lessons Learned

Well, that was quite a lot, wasn't it? We learned that all elements as well as their harmonious interplay are important and must not be ignored. As a final step, practice what you preach! Use all of this as a compass for business decisions and practices. Otherwise, you will not be taken seriously and the work invested is not only useless & worthless but in the worst case destructive.

All of us know that not every day is a rosy one. Nevertheless, we don't want to get up in the morning and ask ourselves why the heck we take this pain, right? Instead, let's build a lighthouse that guides colleagues in good and bad times through inspiration and motivation, and highlights that it's worth doing to achieve the common goal.


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