Values ... Let's Get Personal

We have written here before about the role that values can play in helping organizations improve their performance. But I am inspired to blog about a slightly different orientation based on a conversation we had last week with participants from Cross Country Canada, who were participating in the Risk Management Project (this project is being funded by the True Sport Secretariat and Sport Canada and coordinated by the Sport Law & Strategy Group). Over the past four years, my colleague Rachel and I have had the privilege and pleasure of spending time with 20 NSOs in a series of two-day workshops that have them identify and evaluate possible risks and then determine the best treatment strategy.

Interestingly, the discussions usually brings us back to a topic that I have become very interested in over the past several years – the role of values in sport organizations. Time and time again, we hear about how having a set of identified and defined set of values that are well known and lived daily can be one of the smartest risk treatment strategies one can employ in today’s business world. This blog goes one step further and considers how personal values can help staff and volunteers increase their own capacity by spending time identifying and defining a core set of values that reflect who they are and what they believe in the most. The theory goes that it’s hard to connect to a set of organizational values if you first don’t have clarity around your own personal set of values. Given that sport is about improving the performance of people – from playground to podium and everything in between – it is not surprising that we at the Sport Law & Strategy Group are thinking more deeply about the impact that values can have on the overall wellness of the organizations we serve.

By definition, values are principles or beliefs considered worthwhile or desirable. They help guide behaviour, define goals, and establish standards for acceptable conduct. Values are unique to each organization in that they reflect the common beliefs shared among individuals within that business context. While values tend to remain fixed over time, business strategies and practices continuously evolve and change based on a number of different internal and external factors. Given today’s complex environment, having a core set of values to guide decisions and shape behaviour can make the difference between surviving and thriving. Research builds a compelling proposition for identifying, defining and managing by values and the impact this can have on an organization’s culture. I might suggest that many organizations practice an intuitive form of managing by values. More often than not, this is dependent on the leader’s personal values and the extent to which he/she believes that values can play an important role in determining the organization’s priorities and in creating the kind of culture required to achieve its vision.

In sport, think about the number of initiatives, trends and policies that have emerged in the past decade: Canadian Sport for Life, True Sport, the Canadian Sport Policy, Own the Podium, the hosting of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, an orientation towards policy governance for national sport boards, and many more. Each of these initiatives has affected how we do our work and influences our ability to navigate the sea of change organizations are facing in the 21st century. Having a set of enduring values for your organization will help you make more effective and consistent decisions, attract and retain the people you need to do your work, and create a consistent framework to ensure the work you do meets expectations of members and stakeholders. Or so the theory goes … (for more on this you can read my thesis on the role of values in National Sport Organizations. A more practical approach is to pick up any book by Collins, Cooperrider, Kanter or Mintzberg – all are strong advocates for a values-based management philosophy).

For those who have taken the time to complete a personal values assessment, you’ll understand how life-altering it can be. Increasingly, I have been asked by sport organizations to help facilitate their strategic planning processes. Throughout my time with these organizations, I am continuously astonished by the level of commitment and passion that staff and volunteers bring to the table. What I also observe is a deeply rooted set of entrenched beliefs that sometimes impede our ability as a planning group to move forward as effectively and efficiently as possible – more often than not, where we get ‘stuck’ is at the level of core personal values. This is not surprising and in fact, management science would suggest that for organizations to move from good to great – there needs to be room for authentic dialogue to occur. This is a healthy approach to organizational wellness and one that requires increased attention if we are to meet the demands of the 21st Century. However, in my experience, when people get ‘stuck’ they are not aware of why they are ‘stuck’ or how they got there. Assumptions are often passes as truisms, and personal beliefs, as beliefs for the organizations. Interestingly, the literature suggests that in the absence of a core set of enduring values that is explicitly identified and defined, organizational leaders will defer to their own personal values when making decisions and in their interactions with each other. Making room for a dialogue on your own personal values first is a smart way of providing people with the tools and process they need to more fully understand and activate the core values of their organization.

Based on some recent experiences with leading sport organizations, having people complete a Personal Values Exercise has heightened their own awareness of the role of values and enriched the overall planning process by clarifying issues and acknowledging the different lenses that we each bring to the table. This in turn allows authentic dialogue to occur. The result has been less conflict and a deeper appreciation for the various contributions we each can make during the planning process.

I’ll be blogging soon on research the Sport Law & Strategy Group has recently carried out with the Universities of Brock and Florida on the impact of values on National Sport Organizations.

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