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OPINION: Businesses usually reflect owner values

Rick Warren in his bestselling book “The Purpose Driven Life” addressed the basic question of “what on earth are we here for?” With over 30 million copies in print, the book obviously struck a chord with individuals seeking to make sense of a seemingly nonsensical world. Similarly, most organizations struggle to define their purpose or simply ignore it altogether. For hard charging business executives and entrepreneurs, it begs the question of whether having core values actually matters in a business. Business gurus Jim Collins and Stephen Covey point us toward the truth that enduring companies effectively align their actions with their core values. In fact, a global survey in 2005 by international consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton of over 365 companies validated the link between corporate performance and values and encouraged companies to better consider their return on values (ROV).

Every business has a set of values whether they acknowledge it or not. The values of the members of an organization manifest in the daily decision-making and the norms that define relationships. A company’s values are usually a reflection of the founder’s principles as practically applied day in and day out in the business. The key is that every owner or manager has a choice whether to let these values silently develop on their own or to proactively define them in the organization.

Most people are familiar with the story of Chick-fil-A which was founded in 1946 by Truett Cathy in Atlanta. The company, originally named The Dwarf Grill, is well known for its values-based culture most symbolically demonstrated by its counter-culture decision to close on Sundays. After years of growth, the company was facing some growing pains in the 1980s, and after an introspective review of why they were in the business, the Cathy family clearly defined the corporate purposes as two fold: (1) To glorify God by being faithful stewards of all that is entrusted to us; and (2) To have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.

For anyone who has visited a Chick-fil-A store, what stands out is the incredible consistency of the attitude and service level of the staff. Intrigued by how this service level is attained and how these values are practically applied in the workplace, I visited with Keys Hayes, the owner/operator of the Chick-fil-A located on Lakeland Drive at Dogwood Festival Market. Hayes has been with the company for 31 years and opened the first Chick-fil-A store in Mississippi in 1978 at Metrocenter Mall. Hayes noted that “while I expect excellent performance from my team, I also care about them as individuals.” Like other effective leaders, Hayes strives to serve his employees rather than being served. This translates into his employees striving to serve their customers in a similar manner. While the company does utilize effective technology and training tools, the core of its success is actually fairly simple: Chick-fil-A has clearly defined its purpose and values and effectively aligned its organization to live them out in its daily operations. The results are evident as the company has enjoyed 41 years of consecutive growth and had almost $3 billion in sales in 2008.

Every organization has the opportunity to stand for something. Employees are savvy and can quickly see through inauthentic value statements. A critical component of leading a values-based organization is the consistency of purpose of its leaders. In a fast paced world and shaky economy, now more than ever is the time to consider the secret of most great enduring companies to truly define who you are and align your company around those values. Mississippi, with its noteworthy nation-leading per capita charitable giving rate, is the perfect place to incubate values based organizations that can impact the world.

Martin Willoughby is a business lawyer in Jackson. He can be reached at mew@msbusinesslaw.com.

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