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Turn values into stories to align people & build culture

3 min read

Turn values into stories to align people & build culture

With the right alignment and communication, values become the foundation of engaged employees, an aligned workplace, and a strong culture and brand. Don Bell, cofounder of WestJet, shares what this looks like in practice through storytelling.

In this next installment of our Leadership Conversations series, WestJet cofounder, Don Bell, tells Jostle CEO and cofounder, Brad Palmer, how he used a focus on people and shared stories about the values of the organization to create a happy and aligned workplace. And how this created language – what things like customers and rules are called – to scale WestJet’s famous culture all the way to 10,000 employees.

During this short interview Don explains why helping people understand and internalize the values of an organization lies at the core of creating purpose and alignment. Don shares why WestJet focused on alignment of values with employees, how storytelling played a key role in this, and how this ended up being a key part of the brand that drove their rapid growth into the airline business.

Brad: Mission versus vision versus values. Do you really need all that stuff?

Don: I think ... Yeah, I get kind of tired of it. I'd rather tell a story than read a mission, vision, values on the wall because I find that they're just kind of blah, blah, blah. Everybody says the same thing, it's just maybe a little twist on it.

The mission of an organization, the vision of an organization can't be articulated easily in a few words, although some organizations do a really good job of that. Ironically, I really appreciate Pepsi’s articulation of their mission, vision, and values. Not a company that comes to the top of mind when you think about mission, vision, and values.

I think sometimes organizations miss a lot of things. Values ... If you say your values in six or seven words, they tend to be just words that are plucked out of a hat that end up being very similar to most other organizations, just a different set of words. I think the values tell stories. As a leader, you should tell stories, or make it a parable of values, just so people can really internalize and understand them.

Brad: Do you think an organization needs a change-the-world kind of purpose? A reason for existing on the planet earth?

Don: They certainly need a reason for existing, and they need to understand what makes them unique in the world. The world of business is cluttered -- what sets you apart from others? That definitely is important. As Steve Jobs said when he hired the CEO of Pepsi, "Do you want to sell sugar water the rest of your life or do you want to change the world?".

You can start to articulate uniqueness through a mission, vision, and values, but it's really going to be understood through storytelling. And through the behaviours of leaders, the behaviours of the organization.

Brad: In the case of WestJet, you managed to deploy that right down through your employees. You were able to very clearly speak your organizational values to your customers through your employees.

Don: Yeah, there was a lot of alignment. Alignment was very important to us and we often said that the more successful the business, the more successful the people. Our people had an impact on the success, and they shared the wealth when the business was successful, so there was good alignment financially, there was good alignment from a value standpoint, there was alignment from a customer service standpoint, and there was alignment from a cultural standpoint.

Once you create cultural alignment, it's a force to be reckoned with. It's very tough to destroy that.

Brad: That really became your brand, right? The culture became your brand through your employees.

Don: Absolutely. It really became the brand.

About Leadership Conversations:

Our day job at Jostle is creating a platform that helps leaders engage employees, drive culture, and catalyze collaboration. Through this Leadership Conversations series we seek out top people-oriented leaders to explore these topics with us. If you know someone we should include in this series, please contact us at leaders@jostle.me.

donDon Bell

Don Bell co-founded WestJet Airlines in 1996 and played a key role in quickly growing it to become Canada’s second largest airline. Don’s vision, ideas and leadership were instrumental in creating a powerful company culture based on employee engagement and empowerment. By focusing on its people, Westjet was named Canada’s Most Respected Corporation, won an International Entrepreneurship Award for Outstanding Teamwork in 2001, received the Waterstone Human Capital Award for Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Culture in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008, and led the industry in terms of both growth and profitability. Don served many roles in WestJet including Co-Chief Operating Officer, EVP of Customer Service and as a Boeing 737 Captain. Prior to WestJet, Don spent 18 years as President and owner of a Calgary-based company that developed, installed and supported specialized software systems for enterprises. Don is a much sought after speaker on how employee engagement, commitment and teamwork delivers tremendous market advantages and business results. He is also the Chairman of Jostle Corporation.

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