I’m old. Not as old as the hills, but employed long enough to be cynical about a company vision and values statement. I started professional work in the 1990s, part of the generation that, when things like “vision and values” became the big new thing we all snickered behind our hands.
Things got better over the years of course. Everyone’s HR and operational development departments knocked everyone into shape, but still, there was a certain amount of eye rolling when the next set of values were laminated and pinned up in the break out area.
I’m not saying they didn’t mean anything, I’m just saying that they didn’t seem to mean much to us at the time. Other than the annual vision casting pep-talks, I don’t really remember these things talked about again over the year.
So when I joined EMM two years ago, I was surprised by the values that had been chosen by the leadership and I was absolutely floored by the extent to which the values pressed into every aspect of our working life.
There are four values – Respect, Integrity, Commitment and Humility. Humility? I remember seeing that and being pulled up short. Who has humility as one of their values? Surely only someone for whom values are a meaningful platform. Lots of people can say they have respect, integrity and commitment and not follow through. Humility is impossible to fake. Humility sets an incredibly high bar for expected behaviours. It says a lot about the company.
What I then saw as I settled into EMM was how humility works in practice. In a meeting, everyone had a voice and I had no idea who was where on the hierarchy. I don’t mean it’s a socialist utopia, I mean that the attitude to everyone was the same. There was no pandering to leaders and ignoring the grads. Everyone was treated equally, and that’s an attitude borne of a humility that has permeated through the culture of the organization.
I saw a hiring policy that was underpinned by value alignment – they want great specialists but who also display the values, and humility is a key one. A company culture can be easily broken with people who don’t live out the values. An individual or even a team can be ruined by a lack of humility. A project can be decimated by it.
I saw projects and people who were unafraid to change their minds or flex and adapt to project circumstances – because with humility, we are not wedded to keeping things the same for the sake of it. It frees us to adapt and problem solve without feeling precious about “our way”.
I saw performance appraisals based on living out the values through project work, business development and team interaction. It’s that important.
Company culture filters down from the top and it is staggering to me that the leadership decided that humility needed to be a core value. It says that they want our company to be built on mutual respect and trust. It says they want our people to feel valued and safe. It says that they can see that trusted and valued people form better teams and do better work – so while there is a business imperative, it springs from a counter-cultural culture.
C.S. Lewis famously said that humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. This is what I see in action at EMM. People – from the Managing Director to the grads – is people thinking of themselves less, and their colleagues more. This builds such a strong foundation for the quality of our work and our ability to deliver. It also creates a collegiate atmosphere that is fun, caring and completely non-competitive. We don’t have to defend our ground or our ideas, we don’t have to posture or compete with each other, we don’t have to do any internal politicking to get to the next career step. When all that “stuff” is stripped away, what is left is the room to focus on our work and our care for each other. It means we can go above and beyond in our projects and in the legacy we want to leave behind us.
Humility. As business models go, it’s a simple one. But the foundation it builds is incredibly strong. This is not a laminated value in the break-out area. It is at the core of our culture and provides the connective tissue between our teams, influencing how we do projects and interact with clients, and each other.
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