The Importance of Values (Or, It Happened One Night)

As a manager and as a person—and now, as a blogger—I’m passionate about helping people in their careers and lives.

So, in this new-to-me forum, I’ll share some of the ways that I strive to help myself and others improve in our organizations and communities. With any luck, I hope to reach new readers and friends along the way.

To me, the most important trait a leader can possess is a set of values that guides everything she or he does. But it’s not enough to have them; you have to embody them. Otherwise, those principles you hold dear are just a nice idea.

The values that I live by are teamwork, innovation and respect for all people: three qualities that will surely become themes in my future writings here.

Like so many of the powerful lessons that we learn about ourselves, I actually uncovered my three values during a crisis. Twenty years ago, I was the ambulatory nutrition manager in charge of Ph.D.- and master’s-trained experts in nutritional services at Metro Health Medical Center—an 861-bed city hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. The hospital was renovating its kitchen, so the food production and distribution system was being moved to an enormous tent. One night during the transition, I got a call at home from my boss’s boss, telling me that my manager was no longer with the hospital. “Dalal, you’re it,” he said, meaning that I was the new head of the department and that I had to make the food production and delivery operation work overnight under very challenging circumstances.

In this 10-minute phone call, I inherited leadership of a 250-person group including food service attendants, Ph.D.s, dietitians, chefs and cooks. I got dressed and went to help the team open the makeshift food tent and cafeteria. We worked well into the night. I learned a lot about how to make things happen. I saw how important it was for everyone to work side by side with everyone else, despite title or background, and that being able to work together is dependent on respect.

At such a pivotal time in the department, I also saw that innovation was a requirement. I needed people to question why we were doing things the way we were. And I needed my team to be able to answer those questions without feeling defensive.

Shortly after that night, I began to talk about teamwork, respect and innovation as the new guiding principles of the department. At a later event, I even distributed tote bags to the staff with these three values printed on them.

From then on, these concepts helped important changes take hold. I temporarily paired dietetics professionals with food service associates and had them deliver food to patients. This spurred a new level of interaction and conversation with the patients that resulted in patient satisfaction scores going up significantly. It also fostered deeper connections, learning opportunities and collegiality among members of the department who had previously been at odds. This paved the way for more respect and more efficient collaboration in the long run. And it proved that you can make changes that increase quality and build good will.

These three values served Metro Health so well that I have brought them with me in each subsequent position. They apply to every organization, at every level.

I still have the tote bag, too. I came across it again when I first started working at Johns Hopkins, and it was a wonderful reminder of what guides me.

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