ELI CEO Stephen Paskoff On Creating A Values-Driven Culture

For Stephen Paskoff, CEO of workplace training specialist ELI, creating civil workplaces is a passion. And with the negative headlines the #MeToo movement has been making over the past year, many business leaders have been listening to his advice of late.

Paskoff is a former trial attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with a deep background in labor and employment law. More than two million people worldwide have taken part in ELI’s Civil Treatment program including some of the nation’s leading employers and governmental institutions, such as Coca-Cola, Verizon, MasterCard, Volvo and the United States Forest Service.

Chief Executive spoke with Paskoff about the things CEOs need to know about creating a values-driven culture, how diversity in the C-suite and in the boardroom can impact the discussion and how his personal leadership style has evolved over the years. Here’s what he had to say:

Tips for CEOs and boards on how to kick-start values-driven culture initiatives

When I’ve gone to organizations, some of the questions I’ve asked them are “Are you concerned about your organization being afflicted or affected by the kind of issues that you think of that triggered #MeToo kinds of concerns? Do you have values that would prevent it? Do you have policies that would prevent it? Do you have training? Do you have complaint systems that would tell people to complain and talk about these issues, and do so safely, and do so anonymously?”

And when they told me they’ve done all these things the question I ask them is, “Well, why are you concerned then?” And what it really gets them to think about is they have systems in place, but there’s a difference between systems and values activation or having a culture that really reflects your values, which is reflected in daily, simple behaviors. That’s the question.

I would ask CEOs to take a look at your values. Like most organizations, they’ll say “respect” or “inclusion” are values. But have you identified a few very specific core behaviors that you commit to as being core to the organization, that you regularly communicate on? The easiest thing is to have the content and the policies in place, but do you have positive to corrective consequences, and do you see this as an ongoing responsibility? A lot of that comes from C-suite leadership and commitment, and that is what’s being avoided.

The trick with CEOs is to get them to see, A, what they’ve got to do beyond just giving lip-service to policies and systems. Second, they’ve got to be able to communicate why it’s significant to the business. And it’s not just to avoid legal risk—it’s for all the things that matter to the organization: teamwork, productivity, safety, that sort of thing. And that’s how we approach it in dealing with them. How we communicate that, how we keep it alive, how we do learning, how we sustain it, and that’s a huge part of our business. But for all of this to work, you have to have a leadership group committed to core behaviors that are derived from the values. They’ve got to live it, they’ve got to talk about it, they’ve got to communicate it, and they’ve got to support it as a long-term initiative.

On whether boardroom and C-suite diversity can provide a different perspective

I think it absolutely can. “Will it?” is a different question. And “Will it?” is the most important question. When you talk about “can it,” you’re asking if we have a group from different backgrounds, can that work? Yes. Will it work, based on inclusion? Which means if you get a group of people who are diverse on the board, but if in meetings they’re not included in the conversations, if when they express their views they’re kind of minimized by either what’s said explicitly or body language, tone of voice, the way people really communicate, whether what you say is important and we’ll listen, then you’ll have nice pictures, but you’re not going to have what you’re really looking for.

And that it takes purposeful commitment and action for inclusion at the board level, or at the C-suite level, to really, really mean anything.

How his personal leadership style has evolved

I’m still learning. First of all, I take the approach that I’m still learning and I’ll always be learning. I’ve learned that the way I act impacts the ways others act. So there are certain things I just would never do as a leader because they reflect our values of respect, and I know it will have an impact on other people.

The other thing that I have really worked on as a leader is listening, and really listening. And it means that when people come in, and when they want to talk about concerns, this is where I’ve really focused on not talking to them when I’m in front of my computer, turning off my phone or giving it to my assistant, sitting in a way that I can look at them and look them in the eye and listen and not interrupt them, and make sure that they know that I have heard them. Not that I necessarily agree with everything, but this idea of listening and really, really thinking about it. And it’s a constant learning experience, I mean we all have to learn how to do that, it’s really, really important.

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Patrick Gorman :Patrick Gorman is managing editor of Chief Executive magazine and Corporate Board Member magazine. He is based in Stamford, CT.