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Why Your Values Determine Your Ability To Compete

2022 July 31
by Greg Satell

When Lou Gerstner was chosen to lead IBM in 1993, he was an unlikely revolutionary. A McKinsey consultant and then the successful CEO of RJR Nabisco, he was considered to be a pillar of the establishment. He would, however, turn out to be as subversive as any activist, transforming the company and saving it from near-death.

Yet there was more to what he achieved than simply turning red ink to black. “The Gerstner revolution wasn’t about technology or strategy, it was about transforming our values and our culture to be in greater harmony with the market,” Irving Wladawsky-Berger, one of his chief lieutenants, told me.

Values are essential to how an enterprise honors its mission. They represent choices of what an organization will and will not do, what it rewards and what it punishes and how it defines success and failure. Perhaps most importantly, values will determine an enterprise’s relationships with other stakeholders, how it collaborates and what it can achieve.

Values Incur Costs And Constraints

At his very first press conference, Gerstner famously declared: “the last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.” It was an odd, even shocking statement for a new CEO charged with turning around a historic company. But what he understood, and few others did, was that unless he changed the culture to honor the values its success was built on, no strategy could succeed.

“At IBM we had lost sight of our values,” Wladawsky-Berger would later tell me. “For example, there was a long tradition of IBM executives dressing formally in a suit and tie. Yet that wasn’t a value, it was an early manifestation of a value. In the early days, many of IBM’s customers were banks, so IBM’s salespeople dressed to reflect their customers. So the value was to be close to customers.”

Gerstner had been a customer and knew that IBM did not always treat him well. At one point the company threatened to pull service from an entire data center because a single piece of competitive equipment was installed. So as CEO, he vowed to shift the focus from IBM’s “own “proprietary stack of technologies” to its customers’ “stack of business processes.”

Yet he did something else as well. He made it clear that he was willing to forego revenue on every sale to do what was right for the customer and he showed that he meant it. Over the years I’ve spoken to dozens of IBM executives from that period and virtually all of them have pointed this out. Not one seems to think IBM would still be in business today without it.

The truth is that if you’re not willing to incur costs and constraints, it’s not a value. It’s a platitude. “Lou refocused us all on customers and listening to what they wanted and he did it by example,” Wladawsky-Berger, remembers. “We started listening to customers more because he listened to customers.

Values Signal Trust And Credibility

In South Africa, the Congress of The People was held in June, 1955. The gathering, which included blacks, mixed race, Indians and liberal whites, convened to draft and adopt the Freedom Charter, much like the Continental Congress gathered to produce the Declaration of Independence in America. The idea was to come up with a common and inclusive vision.

However, the Freedom Charter was anything but moderate. It was a “revolutionary document precisely because the changes it envisioned could not be achieved without radically altering the economic and political structure of South Africa… In South Africa, to merely achieve fairness, one had to destroy apartheid itself, for it was the very embodiment of injustice,” Nelson Mandela would later write.

Yet despite its seemingly radical aims, the Freedom Charter spoke to common values, such as equal rights and equal protection under the law—not just among the signatories, but for anyone living in a free society. It was powerful because of how it signaled to outside stakeholders, such as international institutions, governments and corporations that they shared more with the anti-apartheid movement than they did with the regime.

It was because of those values that activists were able to successfully boycott firms, such as Barclays Bank and Shell Oil, that did business in South Africa. When those companies pulled their investments out, the dominoes began to fall. International sanctions and political pressure increased markedly and Apartheid became politically untenable.

Here again, values would play a crucial role. Much like Gerstner’s willingness to lose revenue on every sale to keep his commitment to IBM customers, Mandela’s commitment to the Freedom Charter, even during 27 years in prison, signaled to stakeholders—inside and outside of South Africa—that supporting his cause was the right thing to do.

Shared Values Drive Collaboration

In the 1960s and 70s, Route 128 outside of Boston was the center of technology, but by the 1990s Silicon Valley had taken over and never looked back. As AnnaLee Saxenian explained in her classic, Regional Advantage, the key difference had less to do with strategy, technology and tactics than it did with values and how the firms saw themselves.

Dominant Boston firms such as DEC, Data General and Wang Laboratories saw themselves as warring fiefdoms. The west coast startups, however, saw themselves as part of the same ecosystem and tended to band together and socialize. “Everybody worked for the same company — Silicon Valley,” Saxenian would later tell me.

This difference in values translated directly into differences in operational practice. For example, in Silicon Valley if you left your employer to start a company of your own, you were still considered part of the family. Many new entrepreneurs became suppliers or customers to their former employers and still socialized actively with their former colleagues. In Boston, if you left your firm you were treated as a pariah and an outcast.

When technology began to shift in the 80s and 90s, the Boston firms had little, if any, connection to the new ecosystems that were evolving. In Silicon Valley, however, connections to former employees acted as an antenna network, providing early market intelligence that helped those companies adapt.

When you value competition above all else, everyone is a potential enemy. However, when you are willing to forsake absolute fealty in the service of collaboration, you can leverage the assets of an entire ecosystem. Those may not show up on a strategic plan or a balance sheet, but they are just as important as any other asset.

Moving From Hierarchies to Networks

The truth is that IBM was not devoid of values when Gerstner arrived. It’s just that they’d gone awry. “IBM had always valued competitiveness, but we had started to compete with each other internally rather than working together to beat the competition,” Wladawsky-Berger remembers. Certainly it valued technology and profits, just not customers.

What Gerstner did was, as noted above, bring the company’s culture and values back into “harmony with the market.” The company no longer wielded monopoly-like power. It had to collaborate with a wide array of stakeholders. It was this realization that led it to become the first major technology company to embrace open source software and support Linux.

Traditionally we’ve seen the world as driven by hierarchies. Kings and queens ruled the world  through aristocracies that carried out their orders. Corporate CEO’s outlined strategies that underlings would have to execute. Discipline was enforced through a system of punishments and rewards. Power was valued above all else.

Yet as Moisés Naím pointed out in The End of Power, “Power is easier to get, but harder to use or keep.” Therefore, the ability to attract has become more important than the power to compel or coerce.  That’s why today, strategy has less to do with increasing efficiencies and acquiring resources and more to do with widening and deepening networks of connections.

Power no longer lies at the top of hierarchies, but emanates from the center of networks. What determines whether we will get there or not is our values.

Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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