Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 16, Issue No. 7b
November 15, 2017
By Dan Coughlin
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Recently I spent a magical day in Philadelphia.
In the morning I worked with the top 14 executives in a tremendous company focused on their values and culture. In the afternoon I spent four hours at the Liberty Museum, the Benjamin Franklin Museum, and the brand new Museum of the American Revolution.
In the morning I provided a workshop called, Digging Into and Strengthening the Engine for Long-Term Success.
I started the workshop with a story about my family’s vacation to Washington, DC in 2013. We visited as many places as we could in six days, but my favorite place was the morning we spent at the National Archives Museum. In the most beautiful room in the building that could have held well over a hundred people there were only about ten pieces of paper on exhibit. That was all there was to see. On those pieces of paper were the original Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Bill of Rights. I wondered why in a magnificent room filled with marble, gold, and glass they would just have ten pieces of paper. And then it hit me. Those three documents are the engine under the hood of U.S. performance for the past 240 years. That is how important ideas and values are to any organization.
Defining Values and Culture
Values are beliefs a person considers to be so important that they drive his or her behavior on a consistent basis.
Culture consists of the beliefs a group of people consider to be so important that they drive behavior across the organization on a consistent basis.
Explaining Culture through Stories
Then I told the group that I was going to tell them about the culture of the community that I grew up in during the late 1960s and early 1970s. I said, “However, rather than me telling you about the culture, I’m going to tell you a story. And then I’m going to ask you to tell me about the culture I grew up in and what values drove our behaviors.” Here’s the story I told.
This is a story about a man named Jim Nolan. We called him Mr. Nolan. I met Mr. Nolan in the fall of 1968. I was 5 years old, and he was 30. He had two daughters at that time. The next year he had another daughter. And then several years later he had a son.
Mr. Nolan was my soccer and baseball coach from kindergarten through fifth grade. He coached my team even though he didn’t have any children on our team. He also coached several other teams at the same time. He did it all on a volunteer basis. He never yelled during the games to anyone. He talked to us on the sidelines. In soccer practice he ran wind sprints with us. In baseball he hit with us and played catch with us. He made sports fun for us for all those years. We played eight soccer games in the fall and eight baseball games in the spring. All our games were on Saturdays at a local park. Mr. Nolan was a carpenter. In addition to his job he would volunteer to do carpentry work up at our church.
About 40 years later in 2010 I was back in my old neighborhood. The only person I knew in the neighborhood was Mr. Nolan. A friend I grew up with and I knocked on his door. He led us inside and we talked for a few hours. He said only positive things about the adults we grew up with.
About three weeks ago I was at a high school soccer game near my house, which is about 30 miles from where I grew up. A parent of two of the high school players is two years younger than me. He grew up in the same neighborhood I did. He pulled out his cell phone and showed me a picture of a team from 1972. In the picture was Mr. Nolan. He carries that picture with him. That’s how important Mr. Nolan is to all of us after all these years.
Understand the Other Person Better by Listening to His or Her Stories
Then I asked the group of executives to describe the culture that I grew up in. What were the values that drove people’s behaviors?
They said, “Family focused, care about kids more than about winning, tight-knit community, care about each other, commitment to the community, and looking out for each other.” They nailed it. Those are the values that drove behaviors in my community.
Then I asked them to tell a story to another person about the community they grew up in, and then the other person had to describe the values and culture of their childhood community. This helped them to understand each other better.
What Do Your Stories Say About Your Culture?
Finally, I asked them to tell their partners real-life stories from their company that would highlight specific values from their organization’s culture. Then the other person had to say what values were demonstrated in that story.
Values and culture are not explained best by words on a piece of paper. Values and culture are explained by real-life stories.
The culture you build today in your organization will affect employees for a long time. Are you building the culture that you want people to talk about 49 years later?
After the workshop in the museums I was reminded through the stories of the American Revolution that it was the original values and culture of America that allowed countries around the world to focus on freedom, independence, self-government, and democracy. Values and culture have an incredible impact over an incredibly long period of time.
Thank you, Mr. Nolan, for being such an important part of the culture I grew up in. You truly made a life-long impact on many, many lives. You impacted our values forever.