Value Your Values. If You Don’t, Neither Will Your Employees (Guest Column)

The only constant in life is change. Over the last two years, this maxim has never felt more visceral. The music industry has experienced disruption to artist tours, the growing role of social music, a massive influx of capital, an increased pace of acquisitions, and the promise of blockchain, crypto, NFTs and the metaverse.

For the people in my organization at Merlin, the independent’s digital music licensing partner, leaning into our values has been a key to our success, both for us and our members. Values serve as guideposts. Values act as “operating principles” that reflect your mission and purpose – to help you through both good times and bad.

It’s never too late to develop your company’s values. I recommend taking stock of your company’s history, your current trajectory, and where you want your company to be in five years. From there, you should listen to your team. In my case, I also took guidance from our members – we are an organization that works on behalf of independent music companies from around the world. Our company also has a Board, so I also listened to their feedback.

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All of this input provided a template to craft values that would translate into shared behaviors at our company. It has allowed us to be a more connected, adaptive, resilient, and ultimately successful team.

Here’s a few of our values that have served us well:

1) Build a Culture of Shared Ownership

Our starting position is that all voices matter. To have a voice, you must encourage dialogue in your team, go the extra-mile to ensure transparency, and create space for everyone to contribute.

Before this role, I had previously worked at three large companies—each operated with high volume, high stakes, and high stress. While I had great mentors and bosses, I rarely had the time to breathe and absorb life lessons.

That led to a binary approach to leadership. Either I would deep dive into all of the intricacies of a multi-person initiative and micromanage each person’s role (i.e., the “do everyone else’s job” type of leadership). Or I would divorce myself from the process and advise in broad terms (i.e., the “sweeping statements” style of leadership). I allowed the pressure to guide my growth curve. That meant I had to find a better balance.

I’ve now learned that a leader needs to focus on hiring people who have similar values but are culturally adaptive — empowering your team and then creating growth opportunities for them. Each person is a component of the values of your company, and you must invest in them to create shared goals.

2) Ask Questions

No one is a mind reader. In fact, too many people have suffered in silence during this pandemic. Yet asking for help is a sign of strength, a means to grow, and an opportunity to learn. Also, if you can pre-empt a misunderstanding with a question, be brave, ask, and get an answer. As a company, we foster this behavior through:

  1. Encouraging shorter calls (15-30 minutes max)
  2. Including less attendees (this creates more room to ask questions
  3. Ensuring each call has a structure (call lead, agenda, notetaker)
  4. Yet also encouraging unstructured conversations cross-departmentally

Leaders who want to help their people grow must create an environment where people feel comfortable making mistakes and asking for help. That means creating a safe space from the top down. Consistency is essential, but sometimes we are not as clear as we think.

For example, I tend to “think aloud.” Or as my family once said: “It’s your third statement that represents what you really mean.”

That may work at a holiday meal, but not as the leader of a global company. My team should not have to decide if the first, second, or fifth statement I make is what I’m actually looking for.

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Hence, repetition is key. As a first-time CEO, it took a long time for me to understand the value of consistency. Words are a signal. They are a framework for your employees to know what’s important and what to prioritize. The better we communicate – and that means through the give-and-take of asking questions – the more we can achieve success.

3) Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan

In my early professional days, I worked long hours. Like, 80-hour work-week hours. My value was “my hours.” I’ve now learned the greater importance of planning, prioritizing, and deep focus.

I have developed processes that have given me back control over my inbox, my calendar, my workday, and, ultimately, my impact. The earlier you develop these behaviors, the better you can manage against the unexpected. For example, I block off at least 1-2 hours a day on my calendar and I have turned notifications off except for the most essential communications. I also start each week by visualizing and then mapping out what a “successful” week would look like, and then I try to live up to that.

I was schooled in the concept of delivering the right information at the right time in the right format to the right people. Those four layers inform every email I send, every statement I make, and the myriad of ways that I communicate, so that I can plan my work and work my plan.

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In moments of crisis or chaos, we can easily forget what we’re seeking to achieve, perhaps lose confidence, and sometimes come unmoored. Values bring us back to Mission: Possible.

In adverse times, it’s more important than ever to lead through shared values. I encourage others to establish them, like we did at Merlin, before the next crisis hits. Two years later, I’m so glad I did. If I didn’t value our values, then I’m not sure how anyone else would have either.

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Jeremy Sirota is CEO of Merlin, the independent’s digital music licensing partner. Merlin is a global leader for independent labels and distributors around the world, representing 15% of the global market share. He started his career as a technology lawyer at Morrison & Forster and went on to hold senior positions at Warner Music Group, culminating as head of business & legal affairs for WEA and ADA. Prior to Merlin, he was an early hire on the Facebook music team.

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