I was in a meeting recently where a leadership team was grappling with their long-term direction. They're doing what many leadership teams must do -- trying to discern how to kick-start growth in their business. It complicates things that they work in the healthcare industry where there's enough upheaval to make anyone feel queasy.
This has led the team to consider all kinds of growth ideas. In this particular meeting, they were exploring an idea about reaching a particular market segment, one that is super price sensitive. For a company that built its reputation on personalized service, this would be a departure.
We had a few outside experts in the room with extensive healthcare experience. As the meeting unfolded, one expert shared what another company had done to grow profitably in this price-sensitive segment. As she shared the details of the business model, it became clear that this other company had achieved its remarkable growth partly be being a little less than forthcoming with customers. Was it downright dishonest? No. But in the immortal words of one of our past presidents, it may have been truthful but not very helpful.
The punch line of the story was simple: "That company made a ton of money in this segment."
I sat in the back of the room watching faces, starting with the leader of the business. Curiosity turned to surprise and then to... discomfort? Disgust? It was hard to put a precise word on the facial expressions, but it wasn't good. It was the same look I see on some face when Donald Trump says how "incredibly proud" he is that he made a lot of money by taking advantage of bankruptcy laws. When someone pulls back the veil on their success and all we
see is naked ambition, many of us recoil. We ask that person to please grab a towel and cover themselves.
The facial expressions in the leadership team told me one thing for sure. I knew we had stumbled on a core value. People post corporate values on walls all of the time. Usually they're lies or wishful thinking. You know you've hit a true value when you're willing to walk away from profitable revenue because the business model doesn't fit with who you are.
My client's company has a long history of building trusting relationships with clients and partners. They care deeply about serving others. They aren't naive. They know that a lot of organizations and people are willing to cut corners with the truth. They know that in some cases - like the one they were hearing about in this meeting - those who are willing to make those compromises have an advantage when it comes to generating certain kinds of results. But they can't bring themselves to conduct business in that way. It would be false. Unlike Donald Trump, results at all costs would cause them discomfort when looking at themselves in the mirror.
This is an Integrity Test. Integrity is about being truthful and upright. It's about not fudging your expense report even when no one's looking.
But it's deeper than that.
Integrity is knowing what you truly stand for. It's about grasping your real values -- not the motivational posters on the wall -- and living by them. Even when it costs you. Maybe especially when it costs you.
In a recent Fast Company interview, Rose Marcario, the CEO of Patagonia talked about the ad her company put out during a holiday shopping season several years ago. "Don't Buy This Jacket," the ad blared, showing one of their high-end parkas. Of course Patagonia wants people to buy their jackets. But this wasn't a clever piece of reverse psychology. Instead, the CEO talked about how the ad reflected the company's core value of asking each person to have as small a footprint as possible on the Earth. That's why they repair clothing for customers instead of simply offering replacements. That's why they get behind low Earth-impact causes even when they have no direct benefit to Patagonia.
Ask yourself and your leadership team:
- What would we stand for, even if it cost us in the marketplace? Usually those deep values come from somewhere in the organization's history or the personal stories of founding members. I know of a university with roots in a religious tradition that emphasizes humble service. To this day, they're drawn to preparing students to serve. They can't help themselves. And I'm thankful for that.
- When is the last time we took that sort of stand? When did you reject a path that may have led to superficial success but would have violated your deepest beliefs? Ironically, Donald Trump is probably facing one of these moments right now. Staying true to what appears to be his core values - including achieving results at all costs within the letter of the law - will likely cost him a bona fide shot at the Republican nomination for President. This is integrity of a sort, though I wish Donald would go to the mat for something more noble than being a good Machiavellian.
- Where can we demonstrate more integrity? There are few things more galvanizing to a team than the tangible expression of deeply held values. Look for those gray areas you've been avoiding, the ones that nag at you because you know they don't really fit with your highest ideals. Search for the scary opportunity that would truly embody your company's beliefs but carries risk or makes you stick out.