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Crisis Of Values At Retail

Furniture World Magazine


Leaders have lied to their people, the public, and themselves.But things will turn around. Use this transition period to rebuild.

Values, Fractiles and Furniture Stores: Fractals are images that are found in nature and can be generated by computers. They take the form of rough or fragmented geometric shapes that can be subdivided in parts, each of which is approximately a reduced/size copy of the whole. These patterns are repeated at ever smaller scales. They are part of the "new science" that can teach us a great deal about how values work to configure organizational behavior. "

“...I believe that fractals... have a direct application for the leadership of organizations. The very best organizations have a fractal quality to them. An observer of such an organization can tell what the organization's values and ways of doing business are by watching anyone, whether it be a [sales] floor employee or a senior manager. There is always a consistency and a predictability to the quality of the behavior. No matter where we look in these organizations, self-similarity is found in its people, in spite of the complex range of roles and levels.

"And, how is this quality achieved? ... Fractal organizations, although they may never have heard of the word fractal, have learned to trust in natural organizing phenomena. They trust in the power of guiding principles or values, knowing they are strong enough influencers of behavior to shape every employee into a desired representative of the organization. These organizations expect to see similar behaviors show up at every level in the organization because those behaviors were patterned into the organizing principles at the very start.”

- Margaret J. Wheatly
"Leadership and the New Science"

In the August/September issue of FURNITURE WORLD we reviewed all the good advice and insights in Jim Collin’s best seller: Good to Great. Now we will address one of the problems Collins left unsolved… the question of values.

Good to Great, like its predecessor: Built to Last, is ambiguous about values, stating that it really doesn’t matter what a company establishes as its values, as long its associates commit completely to them. This is the conventional management-expert position, and a reigning philosophic sacred cow that, in my judgment, is leading to an emerging crisis of integrity in countless organizations. In fact, nothing is more important to a company than the core values it embraces.

The following note was posted to FURNITURE WORLD’s message board on www.furninfo.com and was sent along to me with the comment from the editor: “I've never received such an unhappy message from a retail salesperson.” It is the kind of letter no one wants to write about… it represents the dark side of the furniture industry.

“I’ve been a salesman most of my life, and half of my career has been spent in the furniture industry. I work in a small chain of stores that covers New York and New Jersey. As we all know the economy at the moment is not the greatest but we do very well. Our competition is two of the major name retail stores and some local stores. I always read the industry magazines and I always see some salesman bragging about his job and about the company he works for, which made me wonder, ‘Are we, the salespeople that work for this store the only ones that are unhappy about the conditions that we have?’"

“And what did I find out? No. My coworkers and I are not the only ones that feel this way. We are overworked, not appreciated for the work we do, and we are exhausted half the time. When we were hired to work in this particular chain we were not told the half of it. Policies change on a daily basis, and the salespeople have to deal with it. We do not only sell, we load and unload trucks, we move furniture around, we clean, we inspect and repair the furniture. Inspections and repairs in customers’ houses have to be done on our own time, not store time. We do not get reimbursed for gas or any time that we lose.

“Very often we are told that we have to work our days off and we do not get any other day in return. We are told that twice a month we have to come in one hour and a half before the store opens, usually on a Saturday for a meeting. The problem that we have with this is that some salespeople lose two hours of their own time and they are not allowed to make it up. If something is said to any of the owners a grudge is held and the person who spoke up will suffer because they will be discriminated against. We are also told that if we don’t like it we can leave.

“I agree, if we have such a problem with it we should leave, which is what is happening. When we were hired we were told that there would be some light moving of furniture and that our job would be sales. Once the person is in, the whole entire attitude changes and it makes it quite hard to leave once you already left your previous job and now you are stuck. This industry would be much better served by salespeople that did not have to work forty-six to sixty hours per week. This industry would be better served if salespeople were rested and always willing to welcome a customer into the establishment and willing to help them. It would be better served if the consumer was being helped by trained and professional salespeople. But how can this happen if the crew in a store is constantly changing? How can it happen if every time they come into that store they see a new face? I have been in this particular store for four years and I have seen plenty of coworkers come and go.

“Who gets hurt by this? Everyone. The consumer, because they do not get the proper assistance and knowledge, the establishment because it could be making a lot more sales, the factories that store represents, and over-all the entire industry.

“When Friday comes around and a consumer walks through those doors it’s like, ‘Oh man, go home. Get a life. Don’t these people have anything else to do?’ By this time some of us have already put in more than forty hours and we still have Saturday to go. In the area where I work, we have blue laws, and thank God for this. Establishments cannot be open on Sundays. If it wasn’t for this law we would probably be working seventy hours per week. If industry publications did not just print the rosy side of the business and they dared to print the dark side of it also, maybe, just maybe, the industry would better itself, and we would all win by it.

“Hey, this is slave labor. This is abuse of people. This is what every other industry got rid of. But we still have to deal with it. Do we all have to get a union to step into this business? Maybe that would be the solution. Maybe we should all strike at the same time and maybe something would be done.”

Although some of the “grumbles” in this letter are ordinary grumbles heard from associates in many good furniture stores, what is alarming about this document are the “Metagrumbles” that are expressed in several places. Grumbles are important and deserve the attention of management, but Metagrumbles are red flags. Metagrumbles involve the core integrity of organizations. This salesperson says he has been lied to. He says he has been exploited and used. He tells us his ambition and desire to perform as a professional have been crushed. These are metagrumbles, and they are warning signs that no organization can ignore. They are potentially fatal. How do you tell ordinary grumbles from metagrumbles?

Metagrumbles involve a violation of one or more of three basic values: Integrity, Excellence, and Caring. The spirit of the salesperson who wrote this despairing letter is being crushed because all three values have been breached. These key values are called MetaValues™ because they transcend ordinary values. If these three MetaValues™ are in place and honored, it is hard for an organization to go wrong.

An expert in management theory might read the foregoing paragraphs and protest: “We have been there, done that. Values was the buzz word a few years ago. It is passé now, we are moving on.” To understand why this notion is wrong, one must understand the clear dichotomy between values as generally understood, and MetaValues™. Values, as most of us grasp them, are cliches about good and bad that we have been taught since childhood. Ordinary values are perceived as do’s and don’ts designed to keep us in line. Abraham Maslow, who studied this question in depth, likened them to the reins that society uses to keep immature people under control. However, as an individual reaches levels of emotional maturity and Self-Actualization, Maslow declared that the trite, enculturated values seem to disappear and the MetaValues™ begin to emerge. The MetaValues™ of Integrity, Excellence and Caring no longer serve as the reins to hold one back, they become the horses to pull one along. Likewise, organizations who establish MetaValues™ as the principles by which they conduct business have immense power at their core.

While management experts generally understand that core values are the driving force in successful organizations, those “built to last,” they are wrong when they see all these values as purely subjective. This is not a casual mistake; it is a potentially fatal error. The three key MetaValues™ are transcendent, and without all three being operative, a company is at risk in today’s volatile situational field. Today, much more is required of organizations than efficiency. Yet, most leading management experts do not understand that organizational core values cannot safely be simply subjective matters of taste, such as choice of clothing or food. An organization’s choices of core values are critically important issues of integrity and truth. We are entering into an age of a confrontation of values. I advocate MetaValues™ because they are superior, they work better, are more meaningful, and workers will respond to them more readily.

Jim Collins, in his back-to-back best sellers Built to Last and Good to Great, declares that it really does not matter so much what a company has as its core values. He says that as long as it commits to them totally, it will enjoy success (all other things being equal). In fairness to Mr. Collins, his quest was to discover companies that had endured, and to identify ordinary companies that had suddenly grown to greatness.

Issues of integrity and ethics can, however, no longer be ignored. Common sense begs the question: “Can an organization that adopts values that neglect the common good—or even causes harm—be satisfactory as long as it is successful?” There was a time when sophistry could refute this rhetorical question by claiming that ethics are the domain of philosophy, but that answer is no longer acceptable. The theory of MetaValues™ insists that common sense judgments about ethics and integrity are everyone’s responsibility, including scholars, philosophers, and furniture entrepreneurs.

MetaValues Management™, was developed while working with one of the great furniture entrepreneurial companies. The core values by which it conducts its business are worth mentioning. This company truly honors these values, which are MetaValues™-based. By the way, this organization has enjoyed tenfold growth over the last decade. Here are its core values:

MetaValue Profile of a Great Furniture Company
·Our mission is to be the best retailer of our products in each community we serve by constantly finding new ways to exceed the expectations of our customers.

·We conduct our business with uncompromising honesty and integrity.

·Recognizing that people are our most important assets, we provide rewarding employment and cultivate an atmosphere of Love, Dignity and Respect for all associates, customers and vendors of our company.

·We are individually and corporately committed to excellence: we do it right the first time. We are dedicated to personal growth, always willing to learn new skills and continually striving to be the best at what we do.

·We are good citizens. We encourage participation in community affairs. We contribute to worthy causes.

·We work to grow wisely, and seek to earn a profit and a return on investment in an effort to provide security and material benefits for all of our associates and their families.

Of course, never establish a set of core values that you are not willing to fall on your sword to protect. Core values are the reason your company exists. It is what you stand for, today, tomorrow, forever. Craft them carefully. And once they are in place, listen for metagrumbles. They are a sign something very important is out of line.

Times are changing. The time of the inhuman company is passing. One reason things are tough now is the devastation done by leaders who have lied to their people, the public, and themselves. But things will turn around and integrity will be restored to American business. Use this transition period to rebuild; be ready for the next boom. Running a great, MetaValues™-based company is much more fun and exciting.

Just before John F. Kennedy made his fatal trip to Dallas, he was asked in a press conference if he enjoyed being president. He replied that he did, and commented that the Greeks defined happiness as “Full use of one’s powers along the lines of excellence.” As eloquent as this reply was, more is required of an individual who would be president today. Perhaps we could paraphrase a more appropriate definition of happiness for a Visionary Leader today in this way: “Full use of one’s powers along the lines of integrity, excellence, and caring.” MetaValues™ provide the tools and energy by which a Visionary Leader can so achieve full creative expression of his or her powers.
It is highly unlikely that this article would change the perspective of the company whose unfortunate salesperson wrote to the furninfo.com Message Board. However, as an industry we can generally embrace progressive and enlightened attitudes about values. We can stand for something worthwhile and lasting, something True, Beautiful and Good.

Note: “Some of the material in this article was extracted from a forthcoming book: The MetaValues Investigation, Copyright 2002, Larry Mullins, Boulder CO.”

Larry Mullins has 30+ years experience in the front lines of retail furniture marketing. Larry's mainstream executive experience, his creative work for "promoter-specialists," and study of advertising principles has enabled him to continually develop new High-Impact strategies.He is President and CEO of UltraSales, Inc. Inquires can be sent to Larry care of FURNITURE WORLD at lmullins@furninfo.com.