Management / The American View: Reinforcing Institutional Values

The American View: Reinforcing Institutional Values

Organisations often drift away from their espoused core values through employee churn. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger argues that the values that most define an organisation need to be regularly and deliberately reinforced through activities that clarify leadership’s vision.

Do your business initiatives mean anything? Sure, a new product launch, service offering, or organizational restructuring is supposed to serve some advantageous economic, administrative, and/or logistical purpose. That’s not what I mean. Said another way, do your business activities speak to your employees about who you are as an organisation and what you stand for? Do your changes ‘shake loose’ those workers whose personal values don’t properly align with your crucial institutional values?

As a (very small scale) example of what I’m on about, consider the night I took a small unit of Cub Scouts out in the blistering late summer heat to pick up roadside trash.

Back when my own boys were Cub Scouts, the Pack [1] we were affiliated with went through some existential leadership changes. We’d been led by trained and experienced adults for years. Then, a generational shift left our Pack without trained adult leaders. The experienced people all moved up to the Boy Scout program and left us behind.

A series of volunteers stepped up to fill the Cubmaster position, but no one served for more than a few meetings before quitting. The Pack Committee – the volunteers who managed everything – dwindled to just me and my wife. We reached the point where the only person left that was capable and willing to serve as Cubmaster was me.

I didn’t have time to volunteer, but I wasn’t about to let the kids down.

We struggled to recruit parents to take up support roles. About half of the families in our rapidly-diminishing pack were too busy to volunteer, and the other half weren’t interested. As my tenure as Cubmaster progressed, we kept the games, special events, and rank advancement activities on schedule. The kids had fun. A few parents agreed to attend training. A few agreed to support regional events. What we didn’t have was commitment from the majority of parents to step up and help with the basics.

Making things worse, several influential families demanded that our understaffed unit provide them free activities for their children every weekend as if we were some sort of taxpayer-funded social welfare program. [2] I talked with two parents who clearly didn’t understand the function or intent of the Scouting program, which led directly to their toxic dissatisfaction and refusal to participate.

That encounter convinced me that we had to ‘re-baseline’ the parents’ expectations for the overall program. I changed our next monthly Pack Meeting to be a service project. Instead of meeting on a Friday or Saturday night for an hour of announcements and games, I had everyone meet at the local elementary school on a Sunday evening. Specifically, the Sunday night before the first day of the new school term. I announced that our Pack was going to pick up all of the trash littering the sidewalks up and down the thoroughfare that ran to our neighbourhood’s elementary and junior high schools.

Reaction was (as expected) largely negative. ‘Why should we pick up other people’s trash?’ one parent whinged. ‘Because five hundred children are going to walk down those sidewalks’ I said. ‘We don’t want anyone to get hurt stepping on metal or glass shards.’

‘Why should we do it? Shouldn’t the city take care of that?’ another parent asked. ‘Maybe they should,’ I replied, ‘but no one is responsible for it. If we don’t sort it, no one will … and then innocent children may get hurt. Maybe yours. Maybe your kids’ friends.

A few kids got hurt on that road every year. We could prevent some of those injuries. That seemed like all the motivation that any rational person would need.

‘Why can’t we just play some games and have fun?’ one particularly vapid parent asked. ‘Because the purpose of the Scouting program is to guide children to become good citizens,’ I replied. ‘That entails teaching them the values of community service, self-sacrifice, and personal responsibility. This is an opportunity to inculcate those values by supporting our community.’

‘But it’s summer and it’s hot out’ another parent complained. I didn’t dignify that comment with a response.

Only four Cub Scouts (and their families) showed up for the event. Our merry little band donned gloves and policed up all the trash on both sides of the road. The job took us a couple of hours. Morale was high, though. First, because everyone could see exactly how they were contributing to the community. Every piece of glass that went in a sack was one less potential laceration. Second, because passing drivers slowed down to wave, cheer, and stop to thank the uniformed Scouts for doing good work.

That one initiative resonated within the Pack for the rest of the year. The boys that had participated grew more interested in the Scouting program. At least two of them went on to earn their Eagle Scout rank. Many of the boys that hadn’t participated felt like they’d missed out on something important. Most importantly, we’d drawn a ‘line in the sand’ (so to speak) for the Pack’s families concerning what the Scouting program was about. We weren’t a ‘free babysitting’ club for well-heeled families. We had institutional values and objectives that came first – before the fun and games.

We have a lot of ways of teaching these values. Like how the campsites have to be set up and all the equipment has to be put away before anyone – child or adult – gets to goof off on a campout.

That irked some of the freeloader families. Eventually several of them defected to another Pack – one that promised them more childcare activities with no effort or involvement required. That was fine. It was better to have a small Pack that faithfully worked the official BSA program than have a large Pack that ignored the fundamental purpose of Scouting and, thereby, cheated the kids out of the program’s benefits.

I realize that this story takes place in a microcosm; fewer than 20 kids in a small-town volunteer organization isn’t an ideal a laboratory for modelling enterprise culture hacking. Still, it illustrates my point about designing initiatives to reinforce cultural values. All organizations change over time as the original culture creators drift away and new hires join. An organization’s values, standards, and core principles will naturally drift as well if they’re not regularly and deliberately reinforced.

Put another way: if it’s important to your brand identity that everyone working in your culture understands and abides by a core principle, then it’s necessary to regularly remind your new hires what those required values are … and to demonstrate how far you’re willing to go to ensure that everyone lives up to them. Live your values; don’t just mention them in passing during employee orientation.


[1] A unit for Scouts in the younger age range, corresponding to a Troop in the Boy Scout program.

[2] These were all relatively wealthy families, too. That always struck me as odd that the most well-off parents seemed to feel the most entitled.

Title Allusions: None this week.


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

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Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘bloggersince 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.