To be able to handle yourself, you eventually have to ask yourself “What are my values?” This is not a question about ethics. With respect to ethics, the rules are the same for everyone, and the way to examine them is very simple. I call it “the mirror test”.
In the early years of the twentieth century, the most respected diplomat of all the great powers was the German ambassador to London. He was destined for great things, at least becoming the Minister of Foreign Affairs of his country, if not the Federal Chancellor. But in 1906 he resigned abruptly instead of presiding over a dinner that the diplomatic corps would give to King Edward VII. The king was a notorious womanizer, and he had made it very clear what kind of dinner he wanted. It is said that the ambassador said about it “I refuse to see a pimp in the mirror when shaving in the morning.”
That is the mirror test. Ethics requires you to ask yourself “what kind of person do I want to see in the mirror in the morning?” What is ethical conduct in one type of organization is also ethical in any other. But ethics is only part of a value system – especially the value system of the organization.
Work in an organization whose value system is unacceptable or incompatible with the very sentence of a person to both frustration and zero performance.
Consider the experience of a successful human resource executive whose company was acquired by a larger organization. After the acquisition, she was promoted to the type of work she did best, which included the selection of personnel for important positions. The executive deeply believed that companies should hire outsiders for those positions only after exhausting all possibilities in existing personnel. But the new company believed in looking first “to bring fresh blood.” There are things that can be said about both approaches; In my experience, either one is appropriate. Both are, however, fundamentally incompatible – not as policies, but as values. Each one of them indicates different visions of the relationship between the organization and its people, different visions of the responsibility of an organization towards its people and its development; and different visions of what is the most important contribution a person can make to the company. After several years of frustration, the executive resigned, at the price of a large monetary loss. Their values and the values of the organization simply were not compatible.
In the same way, when a pharmaceutical company tries to obtain results, either by making constant and small improvements or by getting occasional “revolutionary discoveries” of high cost and risk, it is not really an economic issue. The results of both strategies is usually quite identical. In the background, there the conflict is between a value system that sees the contribution of the company as helping doctors to do better what they already do, and a value system that is oriented towards making scientific discoveries.
Whether a company should be targeted for short-term results or with a focus on the long term is also a question of values. Financial analysts believe that companies can be presented for both approaches simultaneously. Successful entrepreneurs know something else. To be sure, each company has to produce short-term results. But in any conflict between short-term results and long-term growth, each company will determine according to its own priorities. This is not a disagreement about economics. It is basically a conflict of values regarding the function of a company and the responsibilities of management.
Value conflicts are not limited to commercial organizations. One of the fastest growing pastoral churches in the United States measures its success by the number of new parishioners. Its managers believe that what matters is how many newcomers become members of the congregations. The Good Lord will then attend to his spiritual needs, or at least the needs of a sufficient percentage. Another evangelical pastoral church believes that what matters is the spiritual growth of the people. The church relieves newcomers who associate but do not enter into their spiritual life.
Again, this is not a number issue. At first glance, it appears that the second church grows more slowly. But it retains as faithful a greater proportion of newcomers than the first. Its growth, in other words, is more solid. This is not a theological problem either, or at least it is in the background. It is a problem of values. In a public debate, one pastor argued, “Unless you come to church first, you will never find the door to the Kingdom of Heaven.”
“No,” the other replied. “Until you first seek the door to the Kingdom of Heaven, you do not belong to the church.”
Organizations, as well as people, have values. To be effective in an organization, the values of a person must be compatible with the values of the organization. They do not need to be the same, but they must be similar enough to coexist. Otherwise, the person will not only be frustrated but will not produce results either.
A person’s strengths and the way that person performs are rarely in conflict; the two are complementary. But sometimes there is a conflict between a person’s values and their strengths. What you do well – even very well and successfully – may not match your value system. In such a case, the work may not seem worthy to dedicate life (or at least a large part of it).
If you allow me, let me add a personal note. Many years ago, I also had to decide between my values and what I was doing successfully. I was doing very well as a young investment banker in London in the mid-1930s, and the work was obviously in line with my strengths. But I did not see myself making a contribution as a portfolio manager. I realized the people were what I valued most, and I saw no point in being the richest man in the cemetery. I had no money and no other employment opportunity. Despite being in the Depression era, I resigned – and it was the right decision. In other words, the values are, and should be, the final test.