Integrity: one value that organizations shouldn't claim

Enron claimed it. Washington Mutual, known today for one of the largest bank failures in American history, also claimed it. And so do many other companies looking to champion their vision and values to employees, shareholders and prospective clients.

As writers and strategists know, not all words are equal. There’s a continuous effort to find new and better ways to articulate ideas. But all this work to differentiate can lead to the homogenization of uniqueness – or more plainly stated, when the efforts to be different result in greater similarity.

Enter integrity – a word that has been elevated to the highest moral ground above terms such as trustworthy, honesty and fairness. It has become a bellwether descriptor – stoking the insatiable desire to be atop the mountain, to exclaim superiority. When a bronze, silver or gold standard isn’t good enough, a platinum or titanium standard gets ushered in. It seems integrity represents the shiny new thing of values quite well.

But when an organization proclaims its integrity and “firm adherence to a code of moral or artistic values” (Merriam-Webster), it should acknowledge it's rolling the reputational dice, especially when adherence is the job of imperfect people. Leaders would be wise to recognize the obvious: mistakes will happen and poor judgment will occur. The more people an organization employs, the more that “firm adherence” becomes a fanciful vision instead of the one that was mapped out. A definitive stance of integrity also can put leadership in a difficult position when dark clouds appear.

This doesn’t mean the tenets of integrity should be overlooked or neglected. Rather, organizations would be better served by aspiring to be recognized as possessing integrity instead of touting it as a self-anointed badge of honor. It needs to be earned daily.

Integrity means something when it is bestowed upon individuals or organizations by others. Only then does it carry real weight as intended.

That’s the irony with integrity: those that truly have it are often the ones that are least likely to claim it.

And perhaps that’s the real takeaway – to place greater value on humility and selflessness more than the chest beating and fist pumping that we have been conditioned to perform.

Is your organization articulating a set of values that is aspirational? How is it helping the entire team uphold what it stands for with confidence rather than false hubris? Share your thoughts and subtleties with us as we strive to not only say the right things, but also follow through with consistent behaviors knowing that, occasionally, bad things happen to good organizations.

Your company's purpose should be this simple

Being helpful.

Being helpful.

What is your company's purpose?

It is not a trick question. In fact, it could be the most straightforward question organizations can ask about their existence. As Graham Kenny points out in his brief Harvard Business Review article, purpose is different from mission, vision and values as it serves to connect the heart with the head in a way that people can feel it.

A clearly defined purpose should have a meaningful impact on internal and external audiences. It's why concepts like making money, dominating the market or wielding influence -- things that organizations may want to achieve and are not inherently wrong -- don't make for convincing or motivating purpose statements. 

The words you choose will matter. So will the actions they inspire. With that in mind, simplicity could be the key to successfully defining your purpose.

At Ratchet we live by a simple, two-word purpose: be helpful. (In full disclosure, when we created this five years ago we didn't think of calling it "our purpose." It was simply the way we wanted to think about the business.) It is actionable and prescriptive without any guardrails. It puts the focus on others rather than the company. It doesn't suggest being helpful in some areas but not others. It demands we think and rethink what it means to be helpful, and that can lead to some innovative ideas and opportunities.

Can something as simple as "be helpful" work for larger organizations? We believe so. Amid all of the important and pressing aspects of running a successful business, we've found there is no substitute for being helpful -- however the situation defines it. We've also found that those things that many organizations aspire to achieve are attainable through a "be helpful" purpose. Consider the following:

BOTTOM-LINE GROWTH happens when products and services provide value, making it a direct and recurring byproduct of being helpful. Clients and customers are likely to stick with those who provide value. 

HAVING INFLUENCE comes when others openly vouch for your credibility. Demonstrating your influence in ways that help others -- whether you were paid for it or gave it away -- matters. This is the power of third-party validation (PR 101) over simply blowing your own content marketing horn.

THE GENEROUS RUNNER-UP is often remembered by companies that have granted opportunities to others. They will need other partners in the future, so consider sharing insights you were holding back even when things don't go your way. It sets you up to be remembered or referred.  

THE TRANSPARENT PARTNER is one that admits to not having all the answers or solutions. Being willing to refer or contract with expertise outside your own four walls isn't a sign of weakness. Rather it's a gesture of helpfulness that puts clients first, not your company's agenda.

There isn't an algorithm or dashboard that can measure helpfulness. In fact, it will be challenging to see the immediate ROBH -- Return on Being Helpful. But helpfulness is a gratifying way to operate on a daily basis and it tends to pay dividends in the long run.

And yes, quarterly earnings, fundraising quotas or stiff competition can cloud the ideas and ideals surrounding purpose -- which is why organizations should take the time to consider a clear and actionable purpose that inspires and will not falter, even during challenging times. When executed well the right purpose can enhance company culture, spark innovative thinking and deepen business relationships. In essence, it can transform a company and its trajectory.

If it helps, feel free to borrow ours. One thing is for sure: you will never be criticized for being too helpful.