Jeff Bezos of Amazon bought the Washington Post three years ago.
Prior to that, journalists there had variable compensation based on one thing – operating income. Now it’s different, as described by Shailesh Prakash, the Post’s chief information officer:
‘When Jeff bought us, within about six months, he threw that [operating income metric] out. Now there are three other criteria. It’s basically: How fast do you move? It’s very subjective. The second one is that there are no sacred cows, to push experimentation. The third thing is debate, but commit. So you can argue all you want, but once we agree, then there’s no undermining. Those are the three things that now very subjectively drive the compensation. ’
Bezos paid $250m cash for the Post – a publication founded in 1877, a public treasure, winner of 47 Pulitzer Prizes and one-time employer of ‘All the President’s Men’ reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, whose ‘Watergate’ work precipitated the downfall of Richard Nixon.
It takes a brave investor to jump into the turmoil that is today’s mainstream news media – and especially one with such credentials, unless you are a natural disruptor and rich enough that losing some or all of the cost of the business would be less of an unmitigated disaster and more of a mild irritation.
But Bezos hasn’t bought the The Post out of a sense of nostalgic philanthropic generosity for an old warhorse. It’s a fantastic brand and a business with a future, but he needed to ring the changes, rally the troops and point them in the right direction.
The creation of those three simple ways of working – that translate across the newsroom, the digital platforms and in advertising – is a great way to start and offers some lessons to those about to embark on the mission, vision, values tap-dance.
Personal view: I like that there are three elements to ‘how we do things around here’ because:
- Individually, they’re easy to understand and act on
- There are three of them, so it’s not going to be difficult to remember all of them
- They push behaviour to radically improve performance – ie which will help a great publication build on its clout and reputation, and move quickly to consolidate its position in the highly competitive world of global digital news, where competitors are nimble and who, rather than having a range of fixed assets including printing presses, invest in cloud capacity in server farms
It may seem obvious that smart, simple, memorable values work best. But over more than 20 years, I’ve consulted for and worked in companies that have got their knickers in a terrible twist while trying to develop meaningful, unique values and behaviours that drive superior business performance.
The following completely fictitious scenario shows how this process can go wrong, and might be a good guide for the future.
Company ‘A’ already has values and behaviours – quite good ones and they’ve been around just three years. But a new CEO is appointed and wants to stamp his/her authority and style on the company. The CEO gives some input on the dozen values and behaviours they want to bring to life to a working group of communications, HR and business people, supported by an agency with experience and a track record ‘in these things’. Three months later the group comes back to the CEO with a tidy set of proposals, based on vast in-depth research and focus groups among employees and other stakeholders. [SO FAR, SO GOOD]
CEO quite likes the proposals, but has some doubts whether the work covers all areas sufficiently. So instead of sending the working group away to tweak the proposal and re-submit, the boss decides to put the values and behaviours proposal as a topic on the next board agenda. [FYI: FATAL MISTAKE]
The board members like some of them, but also share the view that some additional work is needed and it’s agreed that each board member takes the proposals back to their business or functions for consultation. [FYI: AS ABOVE]
It’s already obvious where this is going, but instead of calling a halt by having conversations about ‘not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good’ and launching the simple but imperfect proposal from the working group, the values project begins to die the death of a thousand cuts.
Three months later and nine months into the ‘new’ CEO’s tenure, the inputs from the dozen or so board members land with a thud on the boardroom table.
The new version will have 26 values and behaviours. Some of the original values and behaviours will be hacked into their three constituent parts, renamed ‘drivers’ or ‘imperatives’; values will be muddled with behaviours. The only benefit is that each board member’s business or function is represented by AT LEAST one value or behaviour.
Camels, a dog’s breakfasts and big cheeses
The values and behaviour project becomes a ‘camel’; the result of designing a horse by committee, augmented by an injection of Myers-Briggs personality profiling. The resulting ‘declaration’ can look like this:
‘Company A and its employees are a force for good in society and business. We stand for: Speed, simplicity, clear communications, integrity, risk-taking, responsiveness, customer-focus, fair-dealing, respectful, entrepreneurial, hard-working, work-life balance, environmentally empathetic, process-driven, leading supplier to the paper industry, low inventory, and it’s a great place to work.’
The agency with experience and a track record ‘in these things’ decides to take the fees so far and resign the account, fearing for its own reputation if they’re further associated with what is shaping up to be a ‘dog’s breakfast’.
This ‘basket’ of values is then launched to (dumped on) a bemused senior management team at the annual ‘big cheese’ meeting. Powerpoint packs for cascading the new ‘what we are and how we behave’ program to employees are issued at the end of the first day of the conference. And there’s the threat of a quiz on the values on the last day of the conference.
Senior managers burn the midnight oil learning the new values and behaviours, and most of them ‘pass’ the quiz on the final day. There’s schadenfreude (a behaviour that nearly made the cut for the ‘long list’ because someone on the project had their spell-checker switched to German) in the conference hall when the CEO publicly belittles only one poor soul who couldn’t remember that ‘respectful’ was one of the values…or behaviours.
The roll-out ensues across the globe and employees with more than three years’ service sigh and play the game of ‘Value and Behaviours Workshop’, just two years after they played ‘Behaviours and Values Workshop’ which the previous CEO had spearheaded, before he was fired.
Sadly, if you work for a company where this value-destroying festival of fun occurs every few years, you risk dismissal or being passed-over for promotion if you question ANY part of the Values and Behaviours project. Dissent and skepticism (two values that didn’t make the long list) will be seen as disloyal, a signal of not being a team player and evidence that you are a dangerous subversive ‘who may, sooner or later, wish to work for another company whose values they prefer’. Invariably, declaring that the king is short of a few items of clothing is never career-enhancing.
Don’t mention the war, how to nudge the culture and the ‘mirror test’
So, that’s what can go wrong. But what are the key elements of a successful process. Here’s some of the lessons I’ve learned:
- KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid. Why? Because employees are normal human beings who, aside from the pressures of their work, will only remember about three ways of working or important behaviours. If you’re already up to six, start again
- Who’s Running This Place? A new CEO can run a mission, vision, behaviours and values project on their own with expert input. The fact they do it this way – rather than as a representative sport for board members – will do more to stamp their authority on the company than many other things. And they will maximise the production of horses, instead of camels
- Define the process [for the values and behaviours project] – and respect the process. Thanks to Alan Mulally, former President and CEO of Ford for that. Our CEO of Company A didn’t define the process, got cold feet early on and threw the project to the dogs by letting the board fiddle with the content of the project
- A Devil’s Advocate Reference Group. Pull together some of the most cynical, diverse, incisive old soldiers and young bucks and tell them to tear the early proposals apart. Listen to them and amend as necessary
- Cut the Formality. Labelling things ‘behaviours’, ‘values’, ‘principles’, ‘imperatives’ is in itself a warning to employees that a new regime is flexing its muscles. Their reaction will be to start digging psychological ‘slit trenches’ that they can jump into to avoid being hit by yet another cultural salvo from HQ. So try to avoid referring to the new values and behaviours as such. Tell stories around what the new desired culture looks like and the values will likely get embedded more quickly as ‘the way we do things around here’. This need not be a full-frontal artillery barrage, if a clever special forces op will do the job
- Link to the Business. While you don’t label them ‘behaviours’ etc (The Post guy called them ‘criteria’…without a capital ‘C’), where possible, make the behaviours part of the scorecard for variable compensation and stick them on the appraisal template so employees can focus on these things and get rewarded AND recognized for ‘walking the talk’.
- Blah, blah, blah. Make them as unique to the company as you can. So many companies’ values are so samey, bland and interchangeable that they look like they bought a subscription for the same online ‘values generator app’
- The ‘Values Project’ May Be the Most Important Thing in Your Life, but… Be clear about what you mean by missions, visions, behaviours, values etc and what’s intended for internal and external consumption. If the values and behaviours are aimed at employees, don’t be tempted to share them in too much detail with external audience, like the media. In my experience, it’s the quickest way to empty a press conference. Shareholders, on the other hand, might want to see a return on the huge amount of management time spent on something they might see as peripheral, so if the behaviours enhanced performance, have some examples ready for questions at the AGM
- The Mirror Test. And finally, the CEO and senior colleagues should be able to wake up every morning and look in the mirror and run through all of the values without blinking, flinching or forgetting one.
 Thanks to the Columbia Review of Journalism for prompting this blog and for this para quoted verbatim. Their original article by @kylepope is here