Lived Values Are This CEO’s Key To People-First Leadership

Dan figured it out.


Shane Kinkennon

3 years ago | 4 min read

The thing with “corporate values” is that they make so much sense in principle but in practice often make nice wall art. Strategy setting, operational planning, and annual budgeting all happen with little more than a nod to them. They’re a box that was checked somewhere along the way, and now they sit.

Because I know this to be a fact more often than not, I was captivated by a story recently shared with me by Dan Maguire. Dan was CEO of an $80 million, 250-person IT-consulting firm in Northern Virginia.

A few years ago, at an interesting inflection point in the growth of that business, Dan set out on an experiment relative to corporate values.

He vowed to do them differently, to not merely have them but actually implement them in such a way that they both philosophically and functionally drive the business. He saw it as an avenue to put people first in very concrete ways. What he learned is rather extraordinary.

How it happened

Few years back, Dan felt a tinge of guilt after recruiting several of a competitor’s top staffers. Dan was friendly with that particular competitor’s owner/CEO. So he invited the guy for a beer to call a truce.

During that meetup, the two leaders went beyond the topic of competing for staff and clients and hatched a plan to merge their businesses. Soon the plan was reality, and they agreed Dan would serve as CEO of the combined entity.

Dan and his colleague both knew how to run $40M consulting firms. An $80M firm with two entirely different cultures and processes was another matter. They viewed it as an opportunity to forego practices that were no longer working and instead simply do what the new combined company needed.

Golden opportunity

When Dan and his colleague realized that neither firm brought with it a well-defined set of corporate values, Dan saw an opportunity. What if they built a set of values so crisp, compelling, and utterly usable that those values could become the nucleus of everything the new entity did?

The idea resonated. Dan wanted a vocabulary that called for specific behaviors that everyone understood and could practice every day. He felt the need to create a language that the merged culture could share.

So for months, Dan and his leadership team worked with staff across the company to brainstorm, draft, and refine. It was tiring and at times tedious. But what resulted look like few official corporate values that I’ve seen, core values that simple and straightforward.

“I will Own It. I will Create It. I will Share It. I will Crush It.”

“Own it” was about being accountable, playing by the rules, and pursuing excellence.

“Create it” was about being innovative, thinking big, and finding solutions no matter the challenge.

“Share it” was about not withholding information, and helping one another.

And “Crush it” was about setting and hitting goals and generally being take-charge.

Turning to implementation

The core values that emerged certainly hit the target Dan hoped for: simple, understandable and actionable. So he turned his attention to implementation, with an eye toward the fact that most of his workforce was millennials who value engagement, recognition, and balance. He wanted to operationalize the values in a way that met those needs.

He started by throwing out traditional performance reviews. In their place he put employee-driven ongoing career conversations. Conversations that reflected the own / create / share / crush ethos.

He also established a core-values award. Anyone could nominate a coworker who exhibited one of the four core values in action. Nominees were reviewed on an ongoing basis. Winners received a $200 gift card and were recognized in a weekly companywide email. It made it clear that living the values was a priority.

In the spirit that the value represent, Dan did something fun. He “banned” corporate speak. No busines idioms. No cliches. Shoot straight. And he sought to permeate the company with the mindset. A junior staffer would argue her point in a meeting, and Dan would say, “I hear you.

Now, I’d like you to make that point again without the corporate-speak. Say exactly what you mean, plainly.” He saw people speaking in a common-sense, down-to-earth way as key to constructing a company whose people seek to live out the newly named values.

Dan also established a weekly Monday-morning companywide email. To illustrate that staying jargon-free was possible, and to enable his troops a full line of sight into executive priorities, he summarized what happened the previous week, what was big coming up, and recognized core-values award winners.

What a skeptic would say

I asked Dan, “What would a peer CEO who sees things more solely in numbers say about how you prioritized your time in those early months?” His answer was quick. “A critic CEO would say all of what I did was unnecessary,” he explained.

“They’d tell me that people leave consulting shops like this because they want to, and you can’t influence that. You’re chasing your tail.” Dan’s early work also required hard investment that cut into the company’s EBITDA line, never a CEO favorite.

Yet Dan did it because he wanted to put teeth into the claim that the new company would be about the people first and foremost. And it worked. Dan significantly cut turnover and its related costs. He hit the company’s bottom line target every subsequent year, a measure of efficiency in operations.

And he oversaw a period of significant growth, revealing to those around them that building a company focused on culture and people first is the way to succeed, even in the cut-throat field of consulting.

Takeaway from Dan’s experience

If you’re a CEO or in senior leadership, invite a fresh look at your company’s values. Ask yourself what they’re actually doing for you in the day to day. If you can’t come up with much, or anything that’s particularly tangible, consider refreshing them.

Then explore how you might implement them in programs or operationalize them so they can be not mere window dressing but the driver of daily corporate behavior.


Created by

Shane Kinkennon

Certified Executive Coach. I work with CEOs of company up to $500M to help them get the most of their human capital and to lead change.







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