But values are only words on a piece of paper until they’re tested. That is, until someone is put in a difficult position of choosing between doing the hard right or the easy wrong. The easy wrong is usually more attractive in the short term: It’s more profitable, more convenient, helps you avoid an embarrassment, or just makes you look good.
That’s why stories are uniquely called for when trying to establish values in an organization. Only a story can convey the uncomfortable predicament required to truly define a value. They show what happens when you actually act on your values.
Let’s look at a very typical corporate value: Integrity.
At most companies, each value comes with a short list of defining characteristics. Here’s how one global Fortune 50 company defines integrity. But it’s probably not too different than what you’ll find at a lot of other companies.
- We always try to do the right thing.
- We are honest and straightforward with each other.
- We operate within the letter and spirit of the law.
- We uphold our values and principles in every action and decision.
Those are probably good values by anyone’s standard. But if you find yourself facing a difficult decision, will these bullet points really help you make the right one? Probably not. Instead, read the following story from one of the most admired companies in the world—Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. It should give you a more clear understanding of what integrity means at Northwestern.
Northwestern was founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1857. Two years later, Wisconsin suffered its first catastrophic train accident, killing 14 passengers, including 2 Northwestern policyholders. Together, their claims totaled $3,500. Unfortunately, the company had only $2,000 in assets. Now, that was a tough situation. The company president Samuel Daggett and Northwestern’s trustees had a difficult decision to make. Should they limit the settlement to each family to a total of $2,000? Or should they have the company go into debt to make up the difference? But even if they wanted to pay the full amount, who’s going to loan money to a two-year-old company that’s now technically insolvent?
Mr. Daggett and the trustees did what they knew they had to do. They personally borrowed enough money to make up the difference, they waived the usual 90-day settlement period, and they paid the claims in full.
This story is legend at Northwestern, and its employees still tell it today. Anytime Northwestern claims adjusters are in the difficult position of having to choose between doing the right thing for the policyholder and doing the profitable thing for the company, all they have to do is remember this story.
Stories like this give meaning to the value statement that bullet points can’t. Somewhere in your company, stories like this exist. If bringing your company values to life is important to you, find those stories. Celebrate them. And share them.
[You can find this and over 100 other inspiring leadership stories in my book, Lead with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story, Parenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.
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