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Building an ethical culture - how we do it

October 6, 2020

An ethical culture doesn't just appear. You have to work at it and be consistent. In the world of education, those of us working in admissions and marketing are often fighting the stereotypes of the pushy salesperson, where trust is hard-earned. For NEO Academy, an ethical culture is built on clear values above all else.

An organization that lives by its values and empowers its team to do the same, will always be stronger, with a more loyal and committed team and better long term relationships with stakeholders.

In a changing world, core values provide stability, and 96% of CEO's believe that values are the essential heart of decision making. Work from PwC's strategy& reports that organizations with a clearly defined values-based culture are 1.7 times more profitable and grow 1.9 times faster.

We are not saying it's always easy, and we will be sharing experiences of how values really work in action, but in the long term, embedding values into the DNA of your organization is hugely positive.

We're not talking about extensive ethical policies embedded in a huge corporate organization; we're talking about small teams working in our world of education marketing and recruitment.

No company is too small to think about this, and even the family businesses, which get very little attention from strategists, can find discussions around values to be a great way to establish a working culture that clearly delineates the boundaries between home and office.

If you have ever worked for a family business, you'll know why this is important as it starts to grow. As departments appear and teams grow, there has to be commonality at the core.

So how do we build a culture like this in an organization? Here are the five key NEO tips on how you can build a culture like this in a human way.

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1. Get the Why really clear

Values are not an accessory but embedded at the core of everything you do. Sitting down with the team to really get clear what is important to you and why is something that might take a bit of time. You're basically establishing who you really are, and that's not something to rush. The process can be as simple as each individual choosing their top 5 values and then comparing why. The World Values Day project has a great resource for companies, which lays out the steps clearly. We think this process is also a way to really get to know who is working with you and what their values are. This is the first step to signaling to your team that it is ok to be you, and being your authentic self at work is welcomed and encouraged. Drop the business-speak and dig deep because the perk of emotional connection is worth more than anything else you can give. Arriving at your values together really means something. You are opening up to each other and finding common core ground that means everyone is invested; heart and head.

2. Hire and onboard well

Hiring in a small organization means knowing your staff well, onboard into values, and not just know-how. We work in branding, yet sometimes forget that internal branding is just as vital as the external version. Start the conversation early with new hires. What's behind your MVV (Mission, Vision, Values) statements, and what kinds of behavior are expected or encouraged in your interactions with clients and with each other? Tell stories, give examples, and try to focus on the things you've learned along the way that have formed how you see things now. What judgment calls have had to be made, and what was the takeaway from these? A company's culture comes as much from lessons learned in challenging times as it does from success stories. Values are forged in experiences, and those stories need to come to life in stories and reflections.

3. It starts from the top - live your values

As a leader of a values-based organization, you must model the behavior you expect from others. Always consider the ethical implications of your actions and ask the same of your team. Embed this way of thinking in procedures so staff can see you're serious about it.

Bernie Banks, Associate Dean for Leadership Development at the Kellogg School said in an interview with Industry Week that:

“If you don’t follow up, if they don’t see that you actually refer to those things and incorporate them in a very intentional way in future decisions, then over time people will just become numb to it.”

Yes, your core values should be visible, on the wall and on the website, but if they are not visible in your actions, and the way you talk and frame ideas, then our natural cynicism is likely to kick in and write the whole thing off as just more talk. Take a look at PwC's value statements for a good example of how they link specific pledges to core values so that everyone is clear on how they manifest themselves in everyday working life. 4. Give people permission to be themselves Getting to know your team is important, as people who have their own lives, values, and experiences, and don't only exist in the office chair. By sharing experiences beyond small talk about the weekend, the psychological distance between home and work personas can reduce. Pandemic references aside, who wants to work in a place where you have to wear a mask every day? You hired this person because of who they are, so help them be that person in this new environment. Sharing experiences of things you got wrong is important. If you are a leader, we need to see your vulnerability to feel that you are approachable. This gives your team the confidence and permission to come to you with possible errors in judgment, concerns they have, or maybe just for advice and some connection. This open channel of communication helps people to be themselves. It works both ways as well; ask your team for advice too! Why wall yourself off in tough judgment calls when it's an opportunity to explore the ideas, get input, and show the team that their thoughts matter? Encourage your team to communicate with radical candor and you're on the path to authentic organizational culture.

5. Reward, reassure and reaffirm

In the end, decisions are yours, but navigating tough choices together as a team and using core values for guidance will reaffirm that you are in this together. The team can see you implementing the values in the decision-making process, and sticking to them. This gives important reassurance to them that they can do the same.

Empowering your team to live out your core values will take time and consistent effort, but it's not always about training and supporting. You might also think about rewarding ethical behavior, and making it visible.

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Reinforcing a values-based culture is an everyday thing, and we don't always get it right. However, if we want to get out of bed every day and feel like we believe in what we are doing, believe that we don't have to leave a part of ourselves at the office door or Zoom call, and have something to turn to when tough decisions need to be made, strong and consistent core values are what's needed. At NEO Academy we will continue to keep doing our best because we believe it's the right way to be, for us, and for the organizations and partners we work with.

We have more to come in this series of NEO Culture articles. If you are in the world of Education, Marketing, Communications, Admissions or Sales, we would love to hear what your thoughts are, and welcome any ideas for topics to explore. Let's keep the conversation going.

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