Strategy, branding and health care: Why values go beyond benevolence


Ed Stein,, reprinted with permission

If the current dialog about health care reform can teach us anything, it highlights the importance of figuring out our values.

We all know the importance of inside-out strategic planning (and brand development, for those who consider them separate). The enterprise values, vision, and mission (brand) should be a collective exercise. Involve as many people as possible. Hold retreats, perform exercises, play games, put the words of participants on giant sticky notes. Transform the more insightful quotes into pictures on the graphical strategy map. Include verbatims in the final deliverable. Stage-gate the process by communicating back to the larger enterprise during development.

And we’ve all seen the process devolve and the gears grind. Collaboration turns into open season across units: operations launch scuds at market verticals, marketing challenges revenue models. Anyone can write copy — wordsmith-ing hijacks strategy.

Then at some point getting the damn thing done trumps involvement. Can we just move on already? I’ve got work to do.

How to avoid this in strategy and brand development? It’s probably in the values.

I was lucky enough to work with ethicist and educator Dr. Buie Seawell* for many years. An important mentor for me in many ways, Buie was the first to introduce me to Values Based Leadership, a term coined by another colleague, thought leadership guru Dr. James O’Toole in his seminal book (I’ve had the pleasure of crossing paths with O’Toole a few times as well). Values Based Leadership was a centerpiece of the brand I was charged with developing, providing me the opportunity to dig into it a bit.

And when you dig into it, you find more than a little in common with branding. In fact I’ve often made the claim that Values Based Leadership is really the first treatise on branding. Marketing folks, in my opinion, have re-branded concepts from leadership scholars like O’Toole.

In the end, branding is really about aligning the values of stakeholders. Internal, external. For purposes of talent management strategies, for purposes of selling something by adding value. To empower internal brand ambassadors, to facilitate external buzz through respect for your customers. To guide discussions and build your reputation in an aligned, focused way.

Among the more important things I took away from my time with Buie is an enterprise, unit, or team that’s interested in leading with aligned values has to agree on their values before moving forward with strategic (or brand) planning. Nothing is more important. Hard to dedicate yourself to, but primal.

The first reason is the most obvious: How can you possibly align values if you don’t know what they are?

The second reason is a bit more subtle, but illustrates the utilitarian reason for discovering and articulating values. Buie used to cite a research study that found, despite the hours and days enterprises spend in coming to an agreement about their core values, the same set of values bubble to the top almost every time. (The point of the study is that it isn’t necessarily the outcome of such exercises that matters, but rather the collaborative process.)

In the top five of every company’s list is almost always Trust. Differently articulated and manifested, but primal to the core values of almost every enterprise. In my opinion, this is at the crux of why strategic and brand development can devolve, and why discovering core values has a utility beyond the altruistic.***

At some point an enterprise simply has to trust those who are charged with certain areas of the execution if they want to move forward. Operations has to let go of markets. Marketing has to let go of financial logic. The copywriter has to be trusted with the wordsmithing.

Seems to me that the health care debate (such as it is) is devolving because it’s running into these two problems: we’ve skipped the dialog about our values (thus we can’t figure out how to align them) and we haven’t developed the trust necessary to feel good about the decisions that are about to be made.

I wonder what the town hall meetings would have looked like if there were no strategy or tactics on the table. Instead, what would the dialog have looked like if we spent our time asking questions like Should all people, regardless of past behavior or plain ol’ bad luck, have the same access to care? Do we value profit as the impartial equalizer of our society, even when profit is derived from disease? And at what point in the process—if at all—do we trust those we empower to represent us in going about the work of making values-aligned decisions?

Then figure out how to go about addressing the problem.

Another important point that Buie left with me: Values Based Leadership is time consuming business. It sacrifices efficiency for sustainability. Put in the time to do it collaboratively and you’ve a better shot at an enduring strategy (brand) because you aren’t setting it, you’re discovering it. Leave it up to a smaller group and you’ll get it done quicker, but you risk loosing the engagement and buy-in of the stakeholders responsible for executing it.

I’m sure we’ve all seen down-and-dirty, small-group strategy and branding work well in situations where values are articulated and trust is established and nurtured. It can (and does) work in the right contexts. And with a little luck.

But have we established our values enough for the strategies and tactics of health care reform to succeed? And are we ready to trust our representatives?

What about the strategy and brand planning within your or your client’s enterprise?

* Buie keeps a blog here, detailing his adventures toward a new book on Thomas Hobbes (what b-school prof do you know working on stuff like that?). A bio can be found here.
*** This is nothing new, of course. Steven M.R. Covey’s work deals with nothing but this issue. SC+