published by Nashville Business Journal
Somewhere along our career paths, we all run in to an ethical roadblock. Mine came very early on in my retail career, before I was at Tractor Supply. I found myself facing some very serious moral dilemmas related to my direct report’s integrity, as well as the values of his boss.
I saw no apparent logical path to follow. So went I to see the person I most trusted at the time: my dad. He had lots of business experience and wisdom earned in the banking business. We talked over the issues several times. Eventually I found a way to share my observations and suspicions with the right people in the organization. I stuck to my values and in the end the “bad guys” were fired. I never forgot that experience. While it was a tough lesson, it taught me how to walk the high road.
Later at Tractor Supply I observed the complete opposite in Tom Hennesy, my leader, partner and mentor. He constantly reminded us about the importance of integrity in both personal and business dealings. At first I found the repetition overkill. But soon I learned why he did it. Focusing on the most important parts of professionalism worked. Tractor Supply demanded ethics and people acknowledged the gospel.
When I became president of Tractor Supply, the speeches I delivered always contained something about ethical behavior. As time went on, I included more about the values of our organization, including respecting others and yourself, working as a team, embracing change, taking the initiative and being accountable. We knew our values message was working when we began to hear those same words repeated elsewhere in the organization. Ethics became a key and growing part of our culture.
Embracing ethics in every area of business
My talks about our company’s mission and values began to sound like a broken record to my ears, but it was received strongly by people throughout the organization. The more I talked the more I realized the impact of my words and decided to never slow down. Before a speech at one sales meeting a senior store manager asked if I was going to speak about our mission and values like I always did. I thought for a few seconds and responded, “Damn right I am.”
Every fall several hundred Tractor Supply vendors assemble for a two-day conference to learn about the current year’s business and projected plans for the upcoming year. We also spoke to that group about our values. To my initial surprise, our vendors were as engaged on the topic as our people! Later we learned that many of those CEOs followed in Tractor Supply’s footsteps, spending greater amounts of time and effort speaking about values in their own companies.
There’s no doubt that these discussions matter. Employees are more secure when they understand their organization’s values. When values are clear and consistent, teams can work more comfortably with each other. Employees often stay at companies longer when they know that ethical leaders guide the business. Honestly, it took me a while to really understand that strong culture is built on basic values that everyone understands and believes in.
Today I often run into Tractor Supply employees and other business associates who harken back to talks we had about the importance of strong values. Integrity has staying power. If you want to be a memorable leader, never underestimate your impact when it comes to instilling the right values in your team.