Principles? Oh what a tangled web………..

A client of mine contacted me as he was preparing for an interview with a very big, very successful on-line retail and delivery company whose name escapes me. “They take this stuff seriously” he suggested as he was desperately trying to memorise all 14 of their “Principles of Leadership”.

He had been warned he’d be tested on all and should prepare for the mandatory question “What should our 15th Principle be”? “How about pay your bloody taxes like the rest of us” I ventured! Probably not the best way to secure an offer. 

I often get frustrated by this type of prep for interviews where company’s test your revision of their values and principals to try to gain alignment. As was said on the news this morning, just because someone “takes the knee” does not mean they are not a bigot and if you don’t it does not mean you are. I may not remember your 7th principal of leadership but that does not mean that I either do or don’t agree with it. And if I don’t that does not mean I’m not right for your company which is an enormous mass of lots of different types of values and principals, irrespective of what they said at interview. 

So how does the web get tangled at interview? One of this company’s principles is “Customer Obsession”. Leaders of this company need to be having “unwanted and repetitive thoughts, urges, or images that don’t go away” (definition of obsession) when it comes to how they think about their customers, in other words, they are mentally ill. At the interview this is likely to present itself in the form of a competency question e.g. “What does Customer Obsession mean to you?”. Now bear in mind that based on their defined principles here, the correct answer has to be along the lines “It means my entire existence is solely dedicated to ensuring the customer is overwhelmingly happy with the goods and services I provide to him/her and I will crawl over broken glass to drink their dirty bath water if that is what they want” in order to tick the obsession box and progress to the next crass interview question. The problem is we anticipate the questions and pre-design the answers to fit them not us. 

This all starts when the “creatives” come into the business to help us define these principles and values. A charity I’m a Trustee of recently went through this exercise having canvassed well over 1000 employees to submit their views on what the principles and values of the charity should be. What was presented to us was a tangled web powerpoint slide of well over 100 really positive words; empathy, trust, respect, team, responsibility, caring, etc, etc, etc. We then spent an hour deciding how many we wanted 3, 6, 14 with a view presumably to then revisiting the list to pick the ones that came up the most times (suffice to say empathy was always a front runner). We ended up with 7 and as honesty was one of them I have to admit I honestly can’t remember 3 of the 7. And thats because it became a stats and maths exercise rather than a true evaluation of why we do what we do and more importantly what our customer thinks is a core principle or value we hold dear. 

I don’t want people to align with my values or those of my clients but I do want to know what they hold dear and more importantly why. Often you then get a sense of not only how the individual will behave in your business but also how they are as a person. If the process is all about fit to your values i.e. you, you are not actually going to learn much about me, just what I have designed in advance that I think you might want to hear.

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