Bosses striving to make work more than just a job

How can chief executives put values at the heart of a company?

At the age of just 36, and just days after graduating from MIT with an MBA, Joe Baolin Zhou was in intensive care fighting for his life.

He had initially damaged his spine playing sport, which later contributed to problems with his nerve system.

He vowed that if he were to survive he would live his life with a sense of purpose, as up until then he felt he had been "going step after step without knowing what my ultimate goal was".

Mr Zhou did survive, though he was paralysed from the chest down and left in a wheelchair, and made it his mission to ensure that others would not face the same lack of direction.

More than two decades on, he is chief executive of Bond Education Group, the largest private education service company in southern China.

Joe Baolin Zhou Mr Zhou was left paralysed from the waist down when he was in his mid-30s

As well as tutoring, the group offers personal development courses to help children work out what they want to do in the future, and improve their personal qualities.

For Mr Zhou this is not just child's play. He believes the lack of focus on what are often perceived as softer characteristics contributed to the 2008 financial crisis.

"A lot of Wall Street graduated from top business schools. But what makes them so greedy? I began to realise they probably did not have the right values for themselves and the work."

Bringing the past to life

For chief executives this is a perennial problem. While most companies will have defined a list of values that they believe in and expect staff to adhere to, ensuring they are more than just words on a bit of paper is difficult.

Global drinks giant Diageo's values include being "passionate" about customers, giving fellow employees the "freedom to succeed" and being "proud of what we do".

Start Quote

We combined a virtual economy together with the real economy”

End Quote Chen Feng Chairman, HNA Group

To make these more than just rhetoric, former chief executive Paul Walsh says the company emphasised the heritage of its brands to staff, telling them they were "standing on the shoulders of giants".

With Johnnie Walker whisky, for example, it told them the history of its founder and namesake, who first started to sell the spirit in his grocer's shop in Scotland.

His 14-year-old son Alexander took on the business after he died, driving its expansion and cleverly designing the now famous square bottles to ensure they could be stacked more easily on ships for export, with fewer breakages.

Johnnie Walker Johnnie Walker whisky was put in square bottles to improve efficiency

"We have these brands in our hands for a relatively short period of time in the context of their overall life. We've got to make sure that we hand them over in better shape. That creates a sense of purpose," says Mr Walsh.

He says the company also aims to promote only those who demonstrate the company's values.

"It's through not just the chief executive but everyone living those values, and as a consequence - when they are breached, making sure you have some kind of public recognition of that."

Satisfaction drives success

Chen Feng, chairman of Chinese conglomerate HNA, whose empire spreads from aviation to real estate and financial services, tries to ensure staff are happy outside as well as inside work.

Chen Feng HNA Group, founded by Chen Feng, is both socially responsible and profitable

Right from when he founded the company, he said its key value was not just to make money but to "benefit human beings' progress and happiness", believing that satisfied staff would ultimately drive higher profits.

While this sounds rather vague, the company has done some concrete things to meet these values, including building and then selling houses cheaply to staff.

The programme means its employees can afford a home for themselves and their families despite rocketing property values.

Mr Cheng says that by sticking to its original values, the company has managed to create a socially responsible yet still profitable company.

"We combined a virtual economy together with the real economy. That's why we can develop so quickly and healthily," he says.

This feature is based on interviews by leadership expert Steve Tappin for the BBC's CEO Guru series, produced by Neil Koenig and Evy Barry.

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