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  • A Deep Commitment to Ethical Leadership

    Published on Thursday, March 15, 2012

    Who are you looking for?

    I was recently talking with a colleague about how colleges and training programs can best prepare students for the workforce. We weren’t talking about the specific kinds of preparation needed in terms of job skills or industry specific knowledge though. We were talking about preparation for the ethical and moral choices that people need to make at work and the increased attention that many workplaces are paying to questions of culture and values in their hiring decisions.

    Our conversation prompted me to look through the materials collected at the Great Place to Work Institute as part of the Best Companies selection process, specifically the Culture Audit data on hiring practices, and the employee survey data about the welcoming of new hires.

    I also of course thought about all of this through the lens of trustworthy leadership as a leader’s active involvement in the design and development of company culture will help to determine who is attracted to the workplace, who chooses to stay, and how well the company’s culture will be carried out through the actions of all employees. Trustworthy leaders are the ones best able to create and sustain positive workplace cultures that create great experiences for employees and support positive ethical and moral decision-making.

    What I found was heartening and challenging. Heartening in the sense that so many companies are so explicit about the importance of looking for culture fit during the hiring process – especially many of the small and medium sized companies. The challenging piece comes from thinking about how we can best help young people to understand what these great companies are looking for in terms of values-based decision making.

    I am also always challenged by the question of how to help more leaders understand the absolute importance of their own commitment to lead with integrity. When leaders live and lead by the values and culture they espouse they are able to create and direct tremendous energy towards the success of their own organizations.  

    Did you ever own a red wagon when you were a kid?

    One of the companies that I was particularly impressed with is Radio Flyer (#7 on the 2011 Best Small & Medium Workplaces list). They make those great red wagons that represent such iconic images of childhood dreams and fun. They are a small company – just under 70 employees in the United States and about 60 employees in China – yet their recruiting and hiring practices could easily compete with companies of any size in terms of the thorough and detailed approach they take to finding the right people to fit into their very special organization.

    They let people know what and who they are looking for very directly – on their website, in their recruiting materials and during the interview process. They start off by saying that they are looking for people who “live our values and who can deeply commit to our values“.  While the values are consistent with those of many companies:

    Integrity in all we do.
    Accountability to ourselves and others.
    Passion for excellence.
    "Can Do" attitude.
    Fast, Friendly and Effective service.
    Having fun, spreading smiles.

    ...what happens during the hiring process to find the right people who can commit to those values is quite unique.

    People interested in working at Radio Flyer participate in many interviews. During the interviews they are asked to respond to questions matched to each value and linked with a set of desired behaviors. Responses should indicate to the hiring manager that the applicant could behave in such a way that the applicant could deeply commit to that value.

    Yet at Radio Flyer they are looking for something more than the words – they are looking for someone who can say, “I want this job. This will be the best job I’ve ever had.”  They say that an open position is better than hiring someone who doesn’t fit with the culture of the company and they actively encourage people to scrutinize their own motivation for wanting to work at Radio Flyer. Because when they hire someone, they want that person to stay for a long time.

    Engendering a deep commitment

    Deeply committing to anything takes significant effort, and people new to making a commitment usually look to those with more experience to see how they’ve done it. New hires in any organization will look to longer tenured employees to see what it really means to be ‘deeply committed’ to a set of values. If leaders and managers in the organization walk the talk then those new hires will have great teachers to learn from, yet if leaders and managers say one thing and do another then pretty soon the same thing will happen with new hires – they’ll either settle in to ‘just another job’, start following what leaders really do, not what they say, or they’ll leave the company.

    At Radio Flyer it’s not ‘just another job’. They are doing many things right and their low turnover and over 7400 job applicants last year alone testify to the attractiveness of the workplace culture that they have created and everyone upholds.  The final part of the interview process for every potential new employee is a meeting with the CWO (that’s Chief Wagon Officer). His personal responsibility is to provide a final assessment of the candidate’s ability to deeply commit to the values of the organization. In part he does this by letting people know of his own deep commitment to the values and how he holds himself accountable.

    When leaders actions match their words, and they act in ways that are consistent with the values they and others in their organization espouse, the power of the workplace culture they can create is magnified significantly. When leaders stray from those values, acting inconsistently or undermining the values they claim to stand for, the damage is tremendous.  Leaders at Radio Flyer represent one small company among many where people have set for themselves the task of leading by example.  They get it right, they reinforce for new employees how to live and commit to the company values on a daily basis, and they create really cool red wagons!


    Amy Lyman is co-founder of Great Place to Work® Institute and author of The Trustworthy Leader (©2012 Jossey-Bass)

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