[Life Back West] August 2010 – “Great Expectations”

When you love your child as much as I do my 8 year-old son Traylor, serious discipline seldom seems simple or easy. But when you start from a point of promise, it also helps to start with the values to support and nurture those hopes.

The failure to follow our family’s values got my son grounded for a morning last week at Camp Mather, a family camp near Yosemite. The grounding is not all that different in some respects from the action the Board of Directors of Hewlett Packard took when they bounced CEO Mark Hurd from his role at HP. Although in Hurd’s situation it’s unclear exactly what happened, both cases involved people doing things that they shouldn’t have been doing.

Tone in organizations starts from the top. In families, it starts with parent(s).

Norms and expectations come not only from the tone and talk, but the behavior – both private and public –  that stands behind them. As I’ve written before, large and small organizations ranging from HP, my local market Bi-Rite, to even something like the instant community of this upcoming week’s Burning Man, can do some amazing things if they approach their norms – really values put into behavior – in a simple albeit systematic way.

Families, by the way, can do the same thing.

And with this tone from the top comes any credibility. I have no idea of Larry Ellison is a saint or a sinner (or something in between), but the Oracle Corporation CEO based on his personal history would seem to be a mixed bag commenting on Hurd’s case as he did in his e-mail to the New York Times. The reality is that standards for senior managers regarding tone and values are higher; do as I say, not as I do, both in a family or a corporation, carries little weight.

When I served as the SVP of Human Resources for McKesson’s $13B pharmaceutical distribution business I remember colleague Barry Beck expressing concerning regarding the development of a corporate code of conduct for employees of the company. He was surprised that people were expected to live by them. That, I suggested to Barry, is the point.

Trust can be seen as comprised of three elements; reliability, competence, and motive. Living by agreed norms is one of the ways you build reliability, and hence increase trust.

We don’t have anything exotic that make our family’s values; respect others and yourself (“put-ups, not “put-downs”), share and take turns, take responsibility by doing what you say you are going to do (and holler if things change), tell the truth (see this piece on kids and lying), try (and try again), and be kind. Some of them came from the three of us; some have come from Traylor’s grade school, Marin Country Day School, a place that tries hard (and does well) to live by stated values.

Traylor’s issue, unlike Mark Hurd’s, was not the fudged expense report. Rather it was the near-bedtime “I’ll be right back” at family camp that turned into a search party of one (me) finding him much later hanging out at the camp’s bingo night. The grounding at the cabin the next morning will likely stay with him as a reminder of the consequences of failing to do what he said he was doing – or in this case, letting me know when things changed.

After all, Traylor’s a terrific kid. And we have great expectations.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.