by Gael O’Brien

In the relentless search for how effective leaders can engage employees, 2014 offers three particular examples of values in action. While the organizations are very different – a Fortune 500 company, a family-owned regional business and an online company – understanding how they make their values relevant in addressing the challenges they’ll continue to face in 2015 offers the potential to push each organization to greater success.

Skyscraper- arrowValues too often aren’t given their due. When leaders take the time to live the values and support their being embedded in the culture, a shared sense of values can create a “we” powerful enough to head off crises, transform organizations and propel strategic business decisions.

In 2014, new leadership at General Motors (GM) began an emphasis on values and behaviors to reshape their culture to help GM re-earn customer confidence lost in a crisis; at Market Basket a governance struggle galvanized thousands of non-union employees in a six-week protest, inspiring the support of customers and suppliers, to bring back an ousted CEO who had created a culture of respect and caring they didn’t want to lose; at Zappos, their core values align with change but they are taking a leap into a cutting-edge restructuring to become more entrepreneurial, eliminating manger roles to become more self-directed in what’s called a holacracy.

Mary Barra, a GM veteran and its first female CEO, took office in January 2014 just days before she had to launch recalls for faulty ignition switches. By December 2014, GM had announced more than 70 recalls affecting nearly 30 million vehicles.

Barra’s leadership has focused on putting values back on the GM radar: increasing transparency and two-way communication and taking responsibility for the ignition switch crisis in addressing congressional committees, regulators and customers. She made the results of a GM-commissioned independent report  on the recall relevant to all 200,000 employees, indicating it was expected that each would act with integrity, honor and a commitment to excellence going forward. “We know what General Motors can be,” Barra has said. “We’re on it. We’re committed to doing it. It’s personal.”

She also knows that change begins at the top and involves changing behaviors. At a meeting of 300 GM leaders, she said they identified five behaviors they were committed to owning — candor, trust, winning, accountability and the tenacity to face the challenges. GM is linking executive compensation to engagement in crucial objectives. Clear about where GM failed and what needs to change, Barra is also asking employees to be part of the solution in a “Speak up for Safety” program. However, as many have observed, making it safe at GM to disagree or voice concerns will take a great deal to build trust.

The cultures of Market Basket (25,000 employees) and Zappos (1,500 employees) already had the advantage of ingrained values and a strong community of “we” focused on customers.

Market Basket employees leveraged this in fighting for the return of a CEO who had made the company a place where they said they were proud to work. The essence of the drama of a family shareholder gaining board control and ousting his CEO cousin (over differences in how much profit was required) is that non-union employees fought throughout the summer (losing pay and jeopardizing jobs) to keep a company they loved, where they said ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas made them feel seen, heard, respected and cared about. Customers boycotted stores to support employees who had made them feel welcome over the years, paying higher prices elsewhere because they didn’t want Market Basket to change.

As a result of mounting losses, deserted stores and huge, ongoing rallies, the board finally accepted the ousted Demoulas’ bid to buy them out; by doing so, he acquired a $1.3 billion debt, his job back and the jubilant support of employees and customers.

Loving to come to work is key to a great culture and the ability to deliver the very best customer service and experience, according to Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. Zappos, which routinely makes Fortune’s list of “Best Companies,” has 10 core values driving its culture (which seems to have been unaffected by Amazon’s buying Zappos in 2009). Zappos publishes a culture book annually of employees’ comments about how the culture impacted them that year.

The pioneering move to restructure the company around holacracy as a better way of seeing and seizing possibility has outside fans and sceptics. However, it is consistent with Zappos’ culture and will invite engagement around every one of Zappos’ values, challenging employees to grow, be open, adventurous and build a positive team and family spirit. The goal, according to Hsieh, is to become a more agile, self-organizing, productive entrepreneurial organization enabling employees to self-direct their work rather than mangers telling them what to do. Everyone is expected to show leadership.

As 2014 ends, Zappos’ efforts, like those of GM and Market Basket are still works in progress with significant business challenges ahead.

What will propel each company toward the outcomes they’ve set in motion is how they create in the case of GM, and sustain at Market Basket and Zappos, the potential  of  “we,” people fueled by values that come alive in their work, who feel supported in making a difference.

Gael O'Brien_2012_CropGael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics and is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine.

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