To be able to manage yourself, you usually have to ask, what are my values? This is not a question of ethics. With respect to ethics, the rules are the same for everybody, and the test is a simple one. I call it the “mirror test”.
In the early years of this century, the most highly respected diplomat of all the great powers was the German ambassador in London. He was clearly destined for great things- to become his country’s foreign minister, at least, if not its federal chancellor. Yet in 1906 he abruptly resigned rather than preside over a dinner given by the diplomatic corps for Edward VII. The king was a notorious womanizer and made it clear what kind of dinner he wanted. The ambassador is reported to have said, “I refuse to see a pimp in the mirror in the morning when I shave.”
That is the mirror test. Ethics requires that you ask yourself, what kind of person do I want to see in the mirror in the morning? What is ethical behavior in another. But ethics is only part of a value system-especially of an organization’s value system.
To work in an organization’s value system human resources executive whose company was acquired by a bigger organization. After the acquisition, she was promoted to do the kind of work she did best, which included selecting people for important positions. The executive deeply believed that a company should hire people for such positions from the outside only after exhausting all the inside possibilities. But her new company believed in first looking outside “ to bring in fresh blood.” There is something to be said for both approaches- in my experience, the proper one is to be said for both. They are, however, fundamentally incompatible-not as policies but as values. They bespeak different views of the responsibility of an organization to its people and their development; and different views of a person’s most important contribution to an enterprise. After several years of frustration, the executive quit-at considerable financial loss. Her values and the values of the organization simply were not compatible.
Similarly, whether a pharmaceutical company tries to obtain results by making constant, small improvements or by achieving occasional, highly expensive, and risky “breakthroughs” is not primarily an economic question. The results of either strategy may be pretty much the same. At bottom, there is a conflict between a value system that sees the company’s contribution in terms of helping physicians do better what they already do and a value system that is oriented toward making scientific discoveries.
Whether a business should be run for short-term results or with a focus on the long term is likewise a question of values. Financial analysts believe that businesses can be run for both simultaneously. Successful businesspeople know better. To be sure, every company has to produce short-term results. But in any conflict between short-term results and long-term results each company will determine its own priority. This is not primarily a disagreement about economics. It is fundamentally a value conflict regarding the function of a business and the responsibility of management.
Value conflicts are not limited to business organizations. One of the fastest-growing pastoral churches in the United States measures success by the number of new parishioners. Its leadership believes that what matters is how many newcomers join the congregation. The good lord will then minister to their spiritual needs or at least to the needs of a sufficient percentage. Another pastoral, evangelical church believes that what matters is people’s spiritual growth. The church eases out newcomers who join but do not enter into its spiritual life.
Again, this is not a matter of numbers. At first glance, it appears that the second church grows more slowly. But it retains a far larger proportion of newcomers than the first one does. Its growth, in other words, is more solid. This is also not a theological problem, or only secondarily so. It is a problem about values. In a public debate, one pastor argued, “Unless you first come to church, you will never find the gate to the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Organizations, like people, have values. To be effective in an organization, a person’s values must be compatible with the organization’s values. They do not need to be the same, but they must be close enough to coexist. Otherwise, the person will not only be frustrated but also will not produce results.
A person’s strengths and the way that person rarely conflict; the two are complementary. But there is sometimes a conflict between a person’s values and his or her strengths. What one does well- even very well and successfully- may not fit with one’s value system. In that case, the work may not appear to be worth devoting one’s life to (or even a substantial portion thereof).
If I may, allow me to interject a personal note. Many years ago, I too 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 clearly fit my strengths. Yet I did not see myself making a contribution as an asset manager. People, I realized, were what I valued, and I saw no point in being the richest man in the cemetery. I had no money and no other job prospects. Despite the continuing Depression, I quit- and it was the right thing to do. Values, in other words, are and should be the ultimate test.
Where Do I Belong?
A small number of people know very early where they belong. Mathematicians, musicians, and cooks, for instance, are usually mathematicians, musicians, and cooks by the time they are four or five years old. Physicians usually decide on their careers in their teens, if not earlier. But most people, especially highly gifted people, do not really know where they belong until they are well past their mid-twenties. By that time, however, they should know the answers to the three questions: What are my strengths? How do I perform? And, What are my values? And then they can and should decide where they belong.
Or rather, they should be able to decide where they do not belong. The person who has learned that he or she does not perform well a big organization should have learned to say no to a position in one. This person who has learned that he or she is not a decision maker should have learned to say no to a decision-making assignment. General Patton (who probably never learned this himself) should have learned to say no to an independent command.
Equally important, knowing the answer to these questions enables a person to say to an opportunity, an offer, or an assignment, “Yes, I will do that. But this is the way I should be doing it. This is the way it should be structured. This is the way the relationships should be. These are the kind of results you should expect from me, and in this time frame, because this is who I am.”
Successful careers are not planned. They develop when people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their method or work, and their values. Knowing where one belongs can transform an ordinary person- hardworking and competent but otherwise mediocre-into an outstanding performer.
What should I contribute?
Throughout history, the great majority of people never had to ask the question, what should I contribute? They were told what to contribute, and tasks were dictated either by the work itself-as it was for domestic servants. And until very recently, it was taken for granted that most people were subordinates who did as they were told. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, the new knowledge workers (the so-called organization men) looked to their company’s personnel department to plan their careers.
Then in the late 1960s, no one wanted to be told what to do any longer. Young men and women began to ask, what do I want to do? And what they heard was that the way to contribute was to “do your own thing.” But this solution was as wrong as the organization men’s had been. Very few of the people who believed that doing one’s own thing would lead to contribution, self-fulfillment, and success achieved any of the three.
But still, there is no return to the old answer of doing what you are told or assigned to do. Knowledge workers in particular have to learn to ask a question that has not been asked before: what should my contribution be? To answer it, they must address three distinct elements: what does the situation require? Given my strengths, my way of performing, and my values, how can I make the greatest contribution to what needs to be done? And finally, what results have to be achieved to make a difference?
Consider the experience of a newly appointed hospital administrator. The hospital was big and prestigious, but it has been coasting on its reputation for 30 years. The new administrator decided that his contribution should be to establish a standard of excellence in one important area within two years. He chose to focus on the emergency room, which was big, visible, and sloppy. He decided that every patient who came into the ER had to be seen by a qualified nurse within 60 seconds. Within 12 months, the hospital’s emergency room had become a model for all hospitals in the United States, and within another two years, the whole hospital had been transformed.
As this example suggest, it is rarely possible-or even particular fruitful-to look too far ahead. A plan can usually cover no more than 18 months and still be reasonably clear and specific. So the question in most cases should be, where and how can I achieve results that will make a difference within the next year and a half? The answer must balance several things. First, the results should be hard to achieve- they should require “stretching,” to use the current buzzword. But also, they should be within reach. To aim at results that cannot be achieved-or that can be only under the most unlikely circumstances-is not being ambitious; it is being foolish. Second, the results should be meaningful. They should make a difference. Finally, results should be visible and, if at all possible, measurable. From this will come a course of action: what to do, where and how to start, and what goals and deadlines to set.