Loans are big business for small business owners. Even applying for a simple credit facility can mean risking a lot. But a well-prepared borrower can negotiate from a position of strength, saving thousands of dollars.
Managing a business offers ample opportunities to make a difference in the community –from diversity programs and health and wellbeing to green business practices and social responsibility. And making a difference can provide more than just a “feel good” experience for you and your team. A commitment to values can help improve the reputation of a business, increase employee loyalty and boost productivity. In other words, it is possible to turn socially responsible entrepreneurship into a competitive advantage.
Take it from Tom Gibson, chairman and CEO of The Coulter Companies. This McLean, Va.-based business provides association management services, including consulting and event planning for several high-profile national associations. From the very outset, Gibson envisioned a business that represented his core values. “Yes, I wanted the business to be profitable,” says Gibson. “But more than that, I wanted to make a difference in my market. I wanted to adopt a sustainable business model focused on ‘smart growth,’ the type of growth that provides careers instead of jobs, sustained performance instead of a flash in the pan. To me, that translated to creating from and operating within an ethical framework, one that my colleagues and clients could be proud of.”
In business since 1989, The Coulter Companies has forged lasting relationships with employees and clients. Gibson finds that his workers’ commitment to the business’s core values actually helps to drive growth and sustainability. “Our success proves that businesses can deliver both value and values,” Gibson says.
Here’s how Gibson has infused The Coulter Companies with a culture of ethics:
Integrate ethics into all facets of your company
For Gibson, there’s nothing more dishonorable than merely paying lip-service to ethics. Company policies and procedures are continually reviewed to ensure they are in line with values-based behavior. This covers areas such as conflicts of interest, harassment and discrimination, and professional conduct. “Values are more than statements in a staff meeting. They have to be woven into the words, acts and deeds of an organization,” says Gibson.
Set the tone
Every aspect of your brand should reflect your company’s values, from its mission statement to its financial statements. Coulter’s logo, “Soaring Spirit,” was designed to reflect the belief that individual, as well as organizational, potential is limitless.
Gibson also stresses how important it is for the company owner to “walk the talk” by providing an ethical role model for employees. Stated ethical principles and open business practices clearly demonstrate that your organization can be trusted. “The principals in the organization must lead by example,” says Gibson. “The adage that a fish rots from the head down couldn’t be truer when it comes to matters of organizational trust.”
Turn employees into gatekeepers
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of running a values-based business is teaching people to spot, confront and resolve ethically ambiguous situations,” says Gibson. He discusses business ethics at all levels of the organization. The staff needs to know how to apply the company code of conduct in typical workday situations such as handling conflicts with co-workers, managing reporting relationships or even forwarding appropriate email. New hire and ongoing training programs include discussions of possible ethical dilemmas so employees can role-play ways to manage them.
Evaluate and re-evaluate
The Coulter Companies continually analyzes potential partnerships, new contracts, vendor relationships and reward systems to ensure they meet ethical standards. It actively seeks feedback from its employee teams to serve as a kind of early warning system for emerging business issues, according to Gibson. The organization also regularly takes time to reflect on issues that could affect its code. “We plan multiple retreats during the year to talk about potential issues and examine our values and how we performed against them,” says Gibson.
When possible, keep it light
Values-based behavior doesn’t have to be all stuffy and uptight. Provide opportunities to celebrate socially responsible initiatives. Coulter employees asked to have casual Fridays and some wanted to wear jeans. “Our ‘unity team’ [the committee implemented to listen and respond to employee feedback] decided that jeans-wearers were allowed if they contributed five bucks to the company charity, which was then doubled by a corporate contribution,” says Gibson. “So now, wearing jeans means something and brings a smile to all.”