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Sure, Go Ahead and Ignore Culture & Core Values (... if you don't want to go anywhere)

Neglecting Culture & Core Values for Your Business is Like SpaceX Dismissing the Importance of Rocket Fuel

On a recent road trip, I listened to the audiobook, Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey To Unlock The Secrets Of The Universe, astronaut Mike Massimino’s terrific account of what it’s like to work at NASA, to fly on the space shuttle, and to spacewalk to fix the Hubble Space Telescope.

OK, that sounds lame. What Massimino’s story really conveys is much more compelling. It’s about realizing a childhood DREAM—about the importance of pursuing a dream no matter how improbable. It’s about PERSEVERANCE—about how, most of the time, hard work can get you as far or farther than natural talent. It’s about CAMARADERIE—about the importance of depending on others, of asking for help when you need it, and of generously supporting your peers. Most of all, though, Massimino’s story is about the importance of culture and values.

What Is This Core Purpose & Core Values?

Organizational culture is comprised of core purpose and core values. Core purpose, often articulated in a company’s mission statement, answers the questions “why we exist” and “why we do what we do.” Core purpose is particularly important in defining and executing an effective business strategy. If our core purpose isn’t sufficiently nailed down, our business cannot operate at its full capacity. On the other hand, when our core purpose is clearly defined and consistently communicated, our employees know what they are supposed to do, they are excited about the work, and they are willing to do what it takes to get the work done.

Closely related to core purpose are core values. Core values are what we believe in. Our core values are fundamental. As an organization, our core values define what we stand for. They draw the line between what we will and will not tolerate. They set the standard for appropriate behaviors and attitudes of our people. The best employees are ones who are internally aligned with the core values of the company. Like core purpose, our core values must be clearly defined and consistently communicated. When either the company or an employee does something that violates the core values, it becomes painfully obvious.

Core purpose and core values contribute to the culture of an organization. It seems almost weekly, there’s an example of a company stumbling because of a weak culture. The recent debacle at United Airlines where they dragged a paying and boarded customer off a flight is the latest example.

Culture Sometimes Works Against You

NASA has a strong culture. Not only must you be crazy smart to work at NASA, you’ve got to work hard and be all in. Because lives of astronauts are at stake, NASA demands nothing less than excellence. There is fierce competition among NASA’s employees, everyone wants to get the choicest assignments, but everyone understands they are in it for the greater good: the science, the mission, the agency.

Of course, NASA’s culture sometimes works against it, as evidenced by both shuttle disasters (Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003). NASA officials ignored recommendations of its own scientists to do things differently (their pleas, really). Heeding their advice likely would have saved the lives of the 14 crew members who died in those two separate incidents.

Alas, NASA is made up of some of the smartest people on the planet. Sometimes, their “smart” gets in the way. After every setback, however, NASA redoubles its effort, recalibrates on its core values, and refocuses its core purpose.

We Choose to Go to the Moon

NASA grew up under the audacious core purpose unleashed by President Kennedy during a speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962. There, Kennedy explained why it is particularly important that, as Americans, We Choose to Go to the Moon.

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

The President further refined the challenge that “we ought to do the job [of putting a man on the moon]. And this will be done in the decade of the sixties.”

This was a national effort. Everyone in this country knew what we were doing (going to the moon); when it would be accomplished (by the end of the decade); and the reasons why we were doing it (for advancement of science & technology, for peace & national security, and for exploration & “because it’s there”). Scientists and engineers signed up. Every school teacher and university lecturer knew their role in developing talent for the space program. Every employee at NASA bought in to this mission, right down to the janitor.

When we landed on the moon, not only was our country transfixed, but people across the globe stood and stared, mouths agape. Not just because we had landed a man on the moon, but because we said we were going to do this impossible thing and, damn it, we did it. We. Did. It. We landed a man on the moon. The moon!

That, my friends, is the power of defining and communicating your core purpose.

So What’s the Big Deal About Core Values?

Massimino tells story after story about the importance of camaraderie at NASA. You win together. You lose together. Without question, you do what you must for your colleagues. You protect your own. You defend your own. When Massimino was young, he watched this camaraderie reflected in the movies The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. It’s one of the things that attracted him to being an astronaut.

And when he finally got there—working at NASA as an astronaut—this notion of camaraderie was reinforced constantly. He knew he was in the right place because the core values of his employer and the core values of his fellow employees mirrored his own. It’s one of the things that makes the astronaut corps so successful. Everyone is aligned on this core value.

Massimino tells how astronauts are selected. The intellectual, educational and professional requirements are rigorous. The physical vetting is grueling. By the time a candidate’s application has made it to the selection committee—which is made up primarily of other astronauts—it has already been determined that the individual is qualified. It comes down to the preference of the members of the selection committee. They spend time getting to know the individual to determine if he or she has the Right Stuff –if you will—to fit in. As Massimino tells it, “No jerk has ever gone to space.” NASA has no tolerance for jerks. Astronauts only want to work with the people they think they can work with—who value the mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together. Essentially, NASA only wants people who demonstrate the core value of camaraderie.

What If Jerks Are Okay?

But that’s just NASA. There are probably many businesses where being a jerk is a coveted quality. If that’s the case, it's important to be intentional about hiring jerks. Otherwise you may end up with a bunch of team players sitting around singing Kumbaya. And that does you absolutely no good.

Every employer has its own core values. There is no right or wrong answer about core values. The important thing is that, as business leaders, we each know the core values of our business and we hire based on those core values. When we know our core values, we manage our business based on these values.

Massimino was inspired by Neil Armstrong walking on the moon (core purpose). He was attracted by the sense of camaraderie among the astronauts (core value).

Pop Quiz!

What about your employees? What if you asked them what they are inspired by at work? Is it related to your core purpose? Do they even know what your core purpose is? What if you asked your employees what attracted them to working for you? Is it one of your core values? Do you even know what your core values are?

To get the most out of your workforce, make sure you know your core purpose—your mission—and that you communicate it often. That way, your employees can be motivated and inspired by the work you are asking them to do. Equally important, make sure your core values are clear and communicated on a consistent basis so your employees can know what is expected of them. Doing so is the most effective way to get the best out of your business by getting the best out of your employees.

Andrea J. Applegate is president of Applegate Talent Strategies, LLC, a workforce and talent consulting practice dedicated to transforming businesses into great places to work.

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