Freeman’s Vice Chairman on Core Values, Change, and Conflict Management
Just a few days after Freeman’s annual leadership summit, Credera’s Matt Levy and I met with Carrie Freeman Parsons, vice chair of The Freeman Company. This year, a significant portion of their two-and-a-half-day summit focused on discussing Freeman’s core values. Parsons’ leadership team works diligently to align behaviors and measurement against those values.
The meetings were “the catalyst for us to more effectively operationalize our values and culture,” says Parsons.
Parsons was excited to share more about Freeman’s culture and the lessons she and her leadership team are learning along the way.
Core Values Are the Foundation
The core values of integrity, empathy, innovation, enthusiasm, and excellence are foundational to Freeman’s brand and culture. Throughout the Freeman headquarters, the values are proudly displayed along with Freeman’s purpose and vision. The “True Blue House,” as Freeman proudly calls it, is an easily understandable, visual reminder of Freeman’s values and goals. And wisely, the five core values make up its foundation.
“It is important to clearly define and communicate our values because it helps us make decisions consistent with who we are today and who we aspire to be tomorrow,” says Parsons.
Parsons and her team have been working hard to establish a clear understanding of Freeman’s values and also a quantifiable way to measure them.
“When it comes to company culture, you have to speak to it directly. You cannot make inferences,” says Parsons.
“Culture cannot just be owned from a communications perspective,” says Parsons. “It has to be operationalized and pulled through every touch point possible. We are not 100% there yet, but we are working to pull the ‘true blue’ nomenclature through all areas of Freeman—from recruiting and onboarding to leadership development.”
Change Is a Litmus Test for Culture
Alignment on common purpose, vision, and values was especially important after Freeman’s strategic acquisition of several companies. Strategic growth often brings about necessary change and reorganization, and according to Parsons, change is a litmus test for the quality of Freeman’s culture.
“I can tell when our culture is not as healthy as is should be based on the volume and intensity of ‘sandpaper’ conversations we are having,” says Parsons. “When change is especially hard, there is clearly an undercurrent of mistrust, insecurity, or lack of clarity.”
Several years ago, Freeman made the strategic decision to realign their national sales organization. Internally, there was significant frustration and pushback as a result of this change.
“When the pushback was aggressive, I knew something else was going on internally,” says Parsons. “In this particular case, it turned out to be lack of trust in the why behind the change. There were so many misconceptions and false pretenses – all sorts of unproductive energy that made the transition so difficult.”
“In contrast, for the past several months we’ve gone through another realignment of our sales organization, including reporting changes and competency mapping” says Parsons. “Despite the scope of the change, it has almost been a nonissue—which tells me we are in a much better place. The members of the sales organization trust that we are making the right changes for the business and we will go about those changes in a way that is aligned with our values.”
Today there’s a level of trust in the leadership team that allows for big changes to happen without big problems.
Keeping Foxes out of the Hen House
With so much emphasis placed on their core values, Freeman knows the importance of hiring individuals who perpetuate a positive culture rather than poison it.
“We are intentional about hiring individuals who are naturally aligned with our values,” says Parsons.
“Unfortunately, there have been times when fear has caused us to be hesitant to remove individuals who are not aligned with Freeman’s values,” says Parsons. “We have had high-performing employees in the organization whose actions were consistently incongruent with Freeman’s values. Sometimes, we didn’t deal with it as quickly as we should have. In other words, we allowed competence to outweigh character.”
“Over time, we have learned that the overall health of the organization is far more important than the expertise of an individual. In fact, the more explicit we are about our values, the more obligated we are to act when an employee is not aligned.”
“Overall Freeman has an extremely polite culture,” says Parsons.
Being polite doesn’t mean an organization is free of conflict. A significant contributor to Freeman’s healthy culture is their ability to handle conflict directly.
For example, Albert Chew joined Freeman as chief people officer in 2006. Today he is president of Freeman’s Exposition division and a highly respected leader. Albert has developed the skill of moderating conflict, bringing clarity, and doing it with kindness.
“Albert is very good at having conversations with people that are incredibly direct and honest, but also highly constructive and outcome based,” says Parsons.
“Albert is able to take situations with a great deal of complexity and identify the heart of the issue,” says Parsons. “He keeps people focused in a way that allows them to collaborate and solve the real problem. He reminds them they are on the same team.”
“Ultimately, excellent communication is key,” says Parsons, “Whether we are talking about culture or core values or working through a difficult issue.”