Reading Building Your Company’s Future by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, I was struck by the fact that I have invested myself in companies that have been lacking in core values and core purpose. I spent several years as an executive at the US side of a global contact lens manufacturer (Clearlab), and as much as I tried to set the tone in terms of why we were there, I often struggled to answer that question myself. On the other hand, I worked for a prominent New York nonprofit, and the difference in identification of and adherence to core values is glaring.
Clearlab is a medium-sized, family-owned company, and its core ideology seemed to change depending on the mood of the owners and which individual owner I was talking to. In hindsight, this contributed to a glaring organization-wide lack of moral, and, ultimately, a lack of direction. Starting with our research and development arm, it was challenging for anyone to know what our organizational focus should be, as we did not truly know what we were trying to be as an organization. Messaging from management might one week have us emphasizing that customer service was paramount and never missing a call was crucial, only to have management pull everyone into a meeting – including our receptionists – the next day, meaning nobody was manning the phones.
Suffice it to say, working in such an organization was often maddening, particularly as I tried to set direction and priorities for my employees. It is not that we needed any particular value to drive us, but we needed some core, organization-wide value that we could look to in times of uncertainty. As Collins and Porras point out, “the key is not what core values an organization has, but that it has core values at all.”
When it comes to core values, I contrast my experience at Clearlab – where there were none – with the Lowline, where they were paramount. The Lowline is a nonprofit that is attempting to build the world’s first underground park in an abandoned trolley terminal in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. As a nonprofit as opposed to a family-owned entity, it stands to reason that organizational values would be more important and more consistent for the Lowline than for Clearlab. For Clearlab, the family’s whims were everything, whereas the individuals in any nonprofit are less relevant than the organization’s mission, as those individuals can come and go but the organization will – hopefully – remain. Moreover, a nonprofit’s core values are often going to be central to its fundraising and outreach, essential to the organization’s survival, while a family-owned company’s need for core values is much more strategic than it is existential.