The 2018 Randy Papé Oregon Advanced Strategy and Leadership Symposium brought together four luminaries at various points in their careers for a candid discussion of the role of personal values in business.
Panelists included Rick Miller (Avamere Group, Rogue Venture Partners), Sabrina Parsons (Palo Alto Software), Liz Forkin Bohannon (Sseko Designs), and James F. and Shirley J. Rippey Professor of Practice Scott Kerslake (Nixon).
Jordan Papé, CEO of the Oregon-grown, family-owned Papé Group kicked off the evening with dean Sarah E. Nutter and a special appearance by The Duck.
Lundquist College of Business assistant clinical professor of product management Damian Vaughn served as moderator.
Kerslake described an “inflection point,” on a redeye flight to Boston, when he made the connection between business and his own values. He said choosing passion, not compensation, is what allowed him to start Athleta, now owned by Gap Inc.
Parsons said she sees a values-centered business as a core competitive advantage, and she wishes she made that connection earlier in her in career.
“Values enable us to humanize our work experience,” she said. “I called BS on 18-hour days,” adding no one is truly productive all of those 18 hours.
“There is a lot of value to letting people be real people,” she said, noting that valuing people for their humanity goes both ways. “We treat our customers like people too,” she added.
Bohannon described how her journey began with “recognition of my privilege in the world.” She had seen how women were being used as “weapons of war” in other parts of the world and how poverty disproportionately affects women and girls.
She made the choice to quit her job and bought a one-way ticket to Uganda, where she met some incredible women—smart, young, and academically gifted—who were going back to their villages.
“The pressure for them not to continue their education was intense,” she said.
In fact, for every year of education attained for these women, their “bride price” goes down.
She wanted to get 25 of these talented women to university. But was this actually solving the core problem or treating a symptom?
“We need to be providing marketplace solutions,” she said. “Jobs. Viable, scalable, long-term social change. These women need jobs, and they need an economy to support them. Seven years later, I believe, passionately, that business is the best tool for creating redemptive communities for marginalized people.”
Miller said early in his career he was more ego-driven, wanting simply to make money and put food on the table for his family. Early choices also resulted in several failures, for which he was very transparent with the audience. He described the evolution of values for him and his company.
In 1985, he took over an old, failing nursing home and remodeled it. He then acquired a few more and did the same, even going so far as to live in each nursing home for a time in order to understand what it’s like to be a customer and what it’s like to be an employee. Over time, he realized he and his team would need to adjust their mission.
“We were aligning our products and expectations with the needs of those we were serving,” he said, going from filling beds to keeping seniors healthy and happy and out of nursing homes. “It was the opposite of what we started doing. We got really good at discharging. The more we aligned ourselves with our customers; the more we were rewarded.”
Kerslake described how important it is to earn buy-in from employees and to walk the values walk. When people feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves it can be very catalytic and very powerful.
“This can’t only be about my values,” he said, adding that people pay no attention to values listed on an office wall, they only care about proof of the value. “Beware of the plaque.”
Parsons, who began her career during the ’90s tech boom, said she has seen a shift to more focus on values, mission, and culture than how to grow a company in recent years.
“Our biggest asset is our people,” she said. “Do they believe in our mission? Do they believe in our values? That’s the biggest indicator of success. As I’ve matured, I’ve understood how important that is. Culture is always going to be there. If there is a void, you are letting someone else create those beliefs.”
Kerslake agreed, adding, “The articulation of values is totally critical. Are we living our values? It’s an active discussion on an ongoing basis.”
In the end, happy employees are a competitive advantage, Parsons said. “Retention is good for the bottom line.”
As the symposium concluded, audience members continued with the question and answer format.
“The honesty and levity from most of the panelists was very refreshing and had me hanging on their very open vulnerable words,” said Brian Gaudette, an MBA candidate at the Lundquist College of Business. “There is a tendency within human nature to self-aggrandize and tell a crowd what one thinks the crowd wants to hear. The sort of honest discussions that took place at this event, I believe, are needed more at our academic institutions.”
“Very open and honest dialogue about business and integrity,” said MBA candidate Molly Mair in her review of the event. “I enjoyed it very much.”