One of the benefits of tough times is that you get to test what you believe about yourself and your company.
All of us have had experiences with corporate mottos that profess great love for customers (“our customers are #1!”). Or perhaps the company has incorporated a more noble-sounding version of the motto into a corporate value statement (“Our company is dedicated to customer-focused quality”).
I remember being at a meeting once when these aspirational value statements became “real” for me.
I was part of an acquisition where three companies were coming together to form a single company. A few of us from the respective companies met to start wrestling through the complexities of creating a single entity from three very different cultures. In the meeting were the CEO, the President, and the exec team of the acquiring company, and a few of us from the acquired companies.
As we were talking about values, the CEO said something that I found pretty harmless. While I don’t remember his exact words, he said something like “we should say that customer satisfaction is our top priority”. I thought this was pretty standard stuff. Who would argue with it?
As it turns out, the President of the new entity did. He bluntly said “no, we’re not going to do that”. He then proceeded to point out all the spending required to live up to that value. He calculated the number of call center staff we’d need to hire to reduce hold times to virtually zero, the investments in development quality, the hiring needed to help customers, etc. When he was done it was almost like the room was thinking “holy cow – that ‘taking care of customers’ thing is expensive!”.
Gauzy, highfalutin corporate mantras are fun and all, but the real work is figuring out what it might take to, you know, actually live up to them.
Which brings us to our unfortunate present and the stress that the global pandemic is placing on all sorts of businesses. As I’ve written about here, we find out what we’re made of more during the tough times than we do during the easy times.
I know of one company that pulled remote workers back into the office cubicle farm exactly at a moment that their local area was among the top three virus hotspots in the entire country because they weren’t “hitting their metrics”. The fact that the company did this is is bad enough, but when you add that this same company articulates “safety” as one of their corporate values it makes it worse. What might employees think about the genuineness of their company’s professed “safety first” value?
Contrast that with VF Corporation, the holding company for a number of active/outdoor brands you know such as Timberland, North Face, Vans, Jansport and many others. They combined belt tightening, borrowing, and smarts so they could continue paying employees of their retail stores while those stores were closed – something they certainly didn’t have to do.
Sure – it’s easy to be noble if you work for a big tech firm and business has increased during the pandemic. But the revenue for many VF brands are driven by retail store sales. In this article about VF, these two sentences jumped out at me:
“We will only proceed with our re-opening plans in locations where we can ensure a safe and healthy return for our employees and consumers,” the statement said.
VF last week released preliminary unaudited selected financial data for full year fiscal 2020 in conjunction with a debt financing that showed a potential sales shortfall of as much as $450 million from a 5 percent rise in revenue predicted in January, Women’s Wear Daily reported.
So the first sentence is basically the company saying “we’re going to take care of our employees. Their health and the health of their loved ones is paramount to us”. The second sentence demonstrates that they were feeling the economic pinch of the pandemic at the exact same time.
It is in the space between those two opposing realities where values and leadership are exposed, for good or ill. A friend of mine works for one of VF’s brands and when he was telling me about this you could hear the pride in his voice. It was really inspiring.
It’s easy to say something is important when things are going well. It’s when times are tough that you find out how important they really are.
Also published on Medium.