Newsletter Article
March 2021

Zen and the Art of Ownership Culture: An Inquiry into Company Values

Director of Culture and Engagement

On July 29, 2020, renowned organizational psychologist and bestselling author Adam Grant tweeted that “Company value statements are mostly empty promises: they’re uncorrelated with people’s experiences at work. Pay no attention to the glitz in front of the curtain. Culture is how people behave…” Grant was highlighting an article that had recently been published in the MIT Sloan Management Review titled, “When It Comes to Culture, Does Your Company Walk the Talk?” The authors, Donald Sull, Stefano Turconi, and Charles Sull, all lecturers and teachers on management, argue that company values only matter to the extent they shape employees’ behaviors and decisions on a day-to-day basis while at work. 

This discussion around aligning values with actions and behaviors reminded me of a story Kimberly Jones, president of employee-owned Butler/Till, told the audience as a member of the NCEO’s annual conference keynote address in 2018. When Butler/Till became employee-owned back in 2014, the company had a lot of fun principles up on their walls that they believed reflected their values as an employee-owned business. While many of these principles, such as avoiding what they called “drudgery” at work, were certainly important to many people, they did not quite translate into individual or group behaviors. They were not reflected in the quality of the work they did for their clients and with one another. 

Values that Produce the Right Actions

The company and its leadership wanted their values to inform the behaviors and decisions of Butler/Till’s employee-owners in their day-to-day work. When I visited the company in 2017, they had already started to take action on this shift in communication and messaging. While speaking to employee-owners about values and the meaning of ownership beyond just their ESOP accounts, I shared with them a still-poignant quote from one of my favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, written by Robert Pirsig: “…right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the [quality] at the center of it all.” When we consider our personal or collective values, we must ensure that the values inform our way of thinking and acting, both in work and our day-to-day lives. 

So what did Butler/Till change? They broadened the scope and meaning of their values as employee-owners of a business. People were aware of their rights as owners, but they started to articulate more clearly what the responsibilities of ownership meant, communicating more clearly a set of values that could be reflected in the actions people take at work and toward their colleagues. For instance, Butler/Till employees have responsibilities concerning their involvement at work as well as their efforts to understand the business’ performance and their impact on it. Butler/Till’s efforts to create an ideas-driven organization was reflected in their expectation that employees would be responsible for sharing their thoughts and ideas when the company created opportunities for them to do so. Employee-owners were also not only expected to perform to the best of their abilities but make an effort to understand how their performance contributes to the company’s success when given learning opportunities. 

Turning the Abstract into Something Practical

In a recent online visit with leaders and employee-owners at 100% employee-owned S&ME, “stewardship” was a core value articulated in what their employee ownership culture meant to all 1,100 colleagues across the country. Stewardship is often times one part leading by example and ensuring the development of one another through learning and education and another part expecting and trusting that people will exercise what they learn in their day-to-day work to sustain the core value and company culture. It’s a two-way street, and everyone has the responsibility to behave and act in this way while passing it down to others. A stewardship culture ensures the sustainability of a company’s core values and encourages everyone to perpetuate them. As with many common core values, whether integrity or responsibility or innovation, the key is to turn something abstract into something that makes more sense in practice and in the way we interact with one another on a daily basis. 

Let’s take a common value like innovation and try to operationalize it into something more practical. Merriam-Webster defines innovation as “a new idea, method, or device” or “the introduction of something new.” Seems simple enough, but if we just tell people to “innovate” without giving them a specific structure on when and how to do that, then the value may fall flat in practice. Companies like Harpoon Brewery create structured opportunities for work groups to generate small ideas that improve their output and efficiency when brewing beer. This is innovation in practice, and involvement opportunities are structured, clear, and actionable. 

If companies hope to innovate, they will inevitably make mistakes. Fear of failure can be a barrier to innovation. That is why one of employee-owned PFSbrands’ core values is “Tolerance of Failure.” They know that failure may occur, but if work teams get into the habit of avoiding the introduction of something new for fear of making a mistake or failing, innovation would be impossible. Tolerance of failure means that their employees will be more inclined to use failure as an opportunity to learn and continue to live out the value of innovation. By transforming the abstract values into behaviors and actions within the workplace, companies can leverage their ownership culture and truly “walk the talk.”