Employees can’t just ‘buy in’ to core values
By Kapp L. Johnson
A church-related college closed its doors in May. In its beginning, it was part of a series of “Bible institutes” spread around the country. Part of a movement founded at the turn of the century, it and its sister institutes had a very narrow focus on church-related vocations and the development of biblical literacy.
In the ’50s, the collection of Bible institutes began to see a change in the demand for their educational product that accelerated in the ’60s and ’70s. One by one, the institutes attempted to adapt to the changing market but eventually only one was left. It, too, sought to adjust to the educational market by becoming a liberal arts college still focused on church vocations but broadening its educational outreach to a wider market. It changed its name and added non-church majors.
Commenting on the closing of his alma mater, an alumnus said, “The president lacked the DNA of the school.” That was true. As the school struggled over the last 20 years, the board of directors turned to leaders who were not of the school culture. They were educators, church people to be sure, but the new leaders could not articulate the “why” of the institution. It wasn’t because they didn’t care. They did. They just weren’t predisposed to the institution’s core values.
“Core values are not something people ‘buy in’ to. People must be predisposed to holding them.” I first came across this quotation seven years ago while reading Jim Collins. It comes from his 2000 article in The Forum called “Aligning Action and Values.” Under the heading “Identifying Core Values,” Collins begins by stating that organizational values cannot be set but only discovered.
I am always fascinated with the hiring process.
In organizations with an articulated value base, the interviewee always affirms the organization’s core values when they are asked in the interview. They might even be asked to expound on their take.
But often the organization is primarily looking for technical expertise and largely misses the core value fit.
The interesting point here is Collins’ notion of “predisposition.” In business, we might find this too subjective and worry about how to identify it.
Collins’ answer is, “I’ve never encountered an organization, even a global organization, composed of people from widely diverse cultures that could not identify a set of shared values. The key is to start with the individual and proceed to the organization.”
This is a very different approach. And this is where the college closing its doors went wrong.
When the college attempted to right the ship, the leadership did not find a person who was predisposed to its deepest core values. In fact, the last president was an enrollment expert highly regarded in those circles.
There are a number of ways to identify what went awry. Certainly, changing educational goals of high school graduates, a small number of persons entering into church vocations, broader social change in theological education, poor leadership and other factors played a role.
But the alumnus’ observation is deeply on point. And the result is devastating. This is the first fall in more than 60 years that the college did not welcome students to its campus. The loss of the college has a wide-rippling effect.
So what is the takeaway for your organization?
Hiring the right people takes more than filling a technical expertise.
It also takes hiring employees who are predisposed to your organization’s timeless core values who will contribute to the strategies and practices that are changing all the time.
• Kapp L. Johnson is a senior lecturer in the School of Management at California Lutheran University.