Custodian of Values

A custodian is a person who has responsibility for taking care of or protecting something .

Asked who might be the custodian of an organisation’s values and most of us would immediately think of the most senior leader, e.g. Chief executive or equivalent. Of course, every member of an organisation has an important role to play in being the custodian of values but when it comes to key strategic and operational decisions it’s the senior leader who is seen to carry the greatest responsibility.

And certainly the role of the senior leader in living out, reinforcing, and celebrating the organisation’s values is a critical factor. No less a person than Bill Gates saw himself to be the custodian of the Microsoft culture and values when he oversaw the remarkable growth of that corporate leviathan.

However, there can be occasions when the chief executive is faced with decisions where the stated values of the company might be compromised.

In such a situation, it might help a chief executive to be able to turn to someone in the organisation who carries the function of ‘custodian’ of the company’s values.

This person, who may not necessarily hold a senior role (in fact it’s better if they don’t) has the responsibility to represent the values of the organisation in an objective manner – away from the practical dilemma facing the senior leader.

Rather than imbuing this person with an official status such as ‘chief values officer’, which runs the risk of turning values into a meaningless bureaucracy, such a person takes on the role of wise counsel.

This person should be someone who the chief executive, or any other leader for that matter, can turn to in circumstances where organisational values are under threat and seek the advice of the ‘custodian’. The function of the custodian is to provide the chief executive with an objective opinion that is free from the practical imperatives of the situation.

By turning to someone who is respected and valued for their objectivity and wisdom, the chief executive has an opportunity to check their decision in private before proceeding with a particular course of action.

So how does such an idea work in modern organisations? Where it works leasteffectively is where a job is advertised and recruited. It is much more likely to succeed where the function is attached to an existing person, who is called upon in certain situations, but who also has the capacity to challenge the chief executive, and others, if values are in danger of being compromised. Some might suggest that this should be the responsibility  of the non-executive Chair, but even this person can become too involved in the short-term decision if it impacts upon shareholder value, media perception, or unpopular decisions.

The real trick in making this work is where this function is seen to be a highly valued by everyone, i.e. they are the ‘conscience’ of the organisation.

Such a role becomes meaningless where organisations simply use the role in publicity materials and descriptions of governance structures but pay no heed to importance of the role.

That is not to say that the ‘custodian’s’ opinion will always carry sway but at the very least the chief executive has had an opportunity to ‘sound check’ the issue against the stated values of the organisation.

So custodian, wise counsel – choose as you will – but a senior leader who doesn’t have access to someone who can fulfil such a function might be well advised to start thinking about who they might informally approach in the first instance.