From Values to Action

When a B-school professor starts a talk by saying he doesn’t have answers, only opinions, that’s certain to raise a few eyebrows.

But then, Harry Kraemer is not your average B-school prof — and his approach isn’t standard B-school proclamations from on high nor are his teachings your average B-school material.

Harry was the Chairman and CEO of Baxter International Inc., a multi-billion-dollar global health care company, and is currently an executive partner with Madison Dearborn Partners, one of the largest private equity firms in the U.S., whose portfolio includes CDW, LA Fitness, and Bolthouse Farms.  And by his telling, he kind of fell into teaching at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management where he currently is one of the most popular and admired professors.

Harry’s “Q & O” approach (that’s Question & Opinion, in lieu of Question & Answer) is only one way he distinguishes himself. His real-world experience and his years of study on leadership give him a unique perspective on the role of values in an organization’s competitive advantage.   I had the pleasure of hearing Harry speak recently and perusing his book, From Values to Action:  The Four Principles of Values-Based Leadership.

His ideas are extremely compelling to me because of my bias for action and execution.  Unlike others who simply promote values and culture, he directly links them to productivity and performance.  And his track record of success speaks for itself.  Here’s some of what I’ve learned from Harry:

– You can’t lead others if you’re not leading yourself first.

Self-reflection is the foundational principle of values-based leadership.  It’s “the key to identifying what you stand for, what your values are, and what matters most.

Harry has made self-reflection a life-long practice, spending 15 minutes every evening asking himself and recording his answers to questions like, “What did I do today?  Did I do what I said I would?  What did I do that I’m proud of?  Not proud of?  If I had to live today over again, what would I do differently?”  And, the clincher:  “If I have tomorrow, what will I do differently based on what I learned today?

Leaders must take the time to shut off the noise and take an honest assessment of their situation.  Not only does this yield clarity on your values, but it enables you to connect and communicate with others more effectively, helps you become more aware of the decisions you make and the likely outcomes and implications, and helps you look at things holistically.

As a math major, Harry tends to boil things down to equations. Here’s how he came value self-reflection:

A – If I’m not self-reflective, how can I know myself?

B – If I don’t know myself, how can I lead myself?

C – If I don’t lead myself, how can I lead others?

If A=B and B=C, then A=C.

– Prioritization requires rigor.

Leaders must face the harsh reality that there will always be more things to do than you are able to.  Prioritization, therefore, is key.  However, too often when companies set priorities, they identify multiple things as top priority. But, as Harry asserts, “Sorry, but it doesn’t really work that way.

You must rigorously designate one thing as the first priority, one thing as second, one as third, and so on.  It’s a difficult process, but once you do it, making decisions based on your priorities becomes fairly easy.

This goes for people as well as organizations.  Everyone has 168 hours in a week to live, but most people don’t think about how they spend their time.   And many confuse activity with productivity.  To align your life with your values, you need to make explicit decisions, identify how you waste time, and decide what you are going to stop doing so you can do what matters.

– It’s as simple – and as hard – as doing the right thing.

Harry boils down values-based leadership to “doing the right thing.”  It’s a simple principle, but one that foils many leaders because they don’t take the time to know what the right thing is.

It’s inevitable that every leader will face change, controversy, and crisis (“the 3C’s,” in Harry’s lingo.)  And it’s in these challenging times, that a leader’s actions broadcast his or her values.  You need to be disciplined, focused, consistent, and credible.  So the time to prepare for the 3C’s is when things are going well.

That’s why leaders need to practice self-reflection – as well as the other principles of values-based leadership:  balance, true self-confidence, and genuine humility.  Doing so is hard work, and it’s really a lifelong practice.  “They represent a lifelong discipline that will challenge you,” Harry admits, “but will always bring you back to what matters most.

The objective of values-based leadership is to be able to do the right thing without agonizing over the issues.  When you know who you are and the values for which you stand, you can see choices more clearly and make decisions more easily.

There is plenty more to learn from Harry, but let me conclude with an inspiring quote from the conclusion of his book:

“Values-based leadership requires lifelong learning and a continuous process of self-reflection to discover those areas in which we need to grow and develop.  We are always traveling toward a forward-moving goal; we never arrive.”

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