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What We Believe (A Corporate-Values Story)

This lesson is a part of an audio course 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell by Paul Andrew Smith

Every company has them—corporate value statements. Now, sometimes they’re called company values and principles, or simply, what we believe. But values are only words on a piece of paper until they’re tested until someone is put in a difficult position of choosing between doing the hard right or the easy wrong.

And, that’s why stories are uniquely called for when trying to establish values in an organization. Only a story can convey the uncomfortable or awkward predicament required to truly define a value.

So, here’s an example. It’s likely that you’ve heard of Sam Walton who founded Walmart in 1962 in Arkansas. But you may not be familiar with Florence Butt, the woman who founded H.E. Butt, or H-E-B, grocery stores in San Antonio, Texas in 1905. Now, for much of the 20th century, H-E-B was the largest grocery store chain in Texas. That is until Walmart came along. And then within a couple of decades, Walmart had overtaken H-E-B as the leading grocer in Texas.

Well, by that time, Charles Butt, the grandson of the founder, was the CEO of the company, and in an effort to learn from his now larger competitor, Charles Butt once asked Sam Walton if he could bring his leadership team to Walmart’s headquarters on a learning mission. Now, that probably seems kind of weird since they’re obviously competitors, but Sam Walton agreed to do it anyway.

So, on the scheduled day, Charles Butt and his whole executive team arrived in Arkansas and met Sam at one of his local stores. Well, when Charles walked in, he could see Sam at the end of a long aisle talking to a customer, so Charles started walking up the aisle with his team. Well, when Sam saw him, he stopped them and said, Charles, I’ll be with you in a minute. I’m talking to this young woman. He was trying to sell her an ironing board cover. And after a few more minutes of conversation, the woman put one of the ironing board covers in her cart and pushed it off to the register.

Sam then turned to Charles and asked him, in all seriousness, Charles, do you know how much worn-out ironing board covers there are in this country? We’re going to sell one million of them this month. Now, what can I tell you about retail?

Now, imagine you’re an employee at Walmart today and your boss told you that story. What lessons about company values could you learn? Here’s my list. First, other retailers are our competitors, not our enemies. We work in the same industry serving the same customers. You know, if we can help each other serve those customers without giving away our competitive secrets, we should.

Second, the customer is number one. You know, even though he’d invited H-E-B’s CEO to fly hundreds of miles just to meet with him, Sam Walton chose to make the CEO wait while he helped a customer.

Alright, third, understanding the customer’s wants and needs is important. How do you think Sam knew there were so many worn-out ironing board covers in the country? He asked.

Okay, fourth, persistence pays off. Valuing persistence means you don’t give up until you’ve helped the customer find what he or she is looking for. Sam didn’t quit until the woman was satisfied with her choice and put the ironing board cover in her cart.

And last, passion wins. Out of the billions of dollars in merchandise Walmart sells every year, Sam had set a goal specifically for how many ironing boards covers he wanted to sell, a million this month, and he was clearly excited by the challenge. Passion is contagious. Spread it, and you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.

So, notice that a story like this can communicate not just one, but a number of different values at the same time, and it does so far better than a corporate value statement ever could. So, to come up with your own value stories, start by finding your company value statement. It’s probably hidden in a dusty drawer somewhere. Go through each item on the list and ask these questions. When have I seen someone’s behavior exemplify this value? What happened, and how did it reflect on that person and the company?

Or, when have I seen someone’s behavior show the opposite character? What happened, and what were the negative consequences for that person and the company? And then, pick the situation that best illustrates the value or values most important to you personally. Build a story around that moment, share it, and ask people what values they learn from it. Chances are, they’ll learn the same thing you did.

Alright, in the next episode, we’ll turn to a story to help everyone understand your customer better.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith