What exactly are values anyway?
IN A NUTSHELL Values are a company's unique DNA.
Values are the guiding principles that you use to make decisions about what you work on and how you go about it. They drive your priorities, attitudes and behaviours.
Most of our decisions are based on values - without them you can’t decide what’s good or bad. We choose one route over another because we value it more, because of the outcome and what it means for us. We endorse certain values and reject their opposites.
When your behaviours match your values, everything feels natural. You feel liberated, able to be your true self. When you do something out of alignment with your values, it can be jarring and unsatisfying. If you are expected to behave differently at work than you would according to your personal values, it can lead to disengagement.
One Team (BP): "Whatever the strength of the individual, we will accomplish more together. We put the team ahead of our personal success and commit to building its capability. We trust each other to deliver on our respective obligations."
Think about some of your team, what do you most admire about their approach? What could their values be that make them behave like this?
- Expressed through personal behaviours
- Likely to be in full alignment with each other
- Expressed through cultural behaviours
- May compete with one another due to company needs (e.g. equality vs entrepreneurship)
Respect (Unilever): "We treat people with dignity, honesty and fairness, and celebrate the diversity of people. We take care of the people we serve and the world in which we operate."
Why corporate values are useful
Values are fundamental to the success and growth of every business. They are your DNA. No matter what sector you operate in, the size of your organisation, the turnover or market share, it is critical that you have a clearly defined and articulated set of values.
Values shape your company culture, influencing how your employees do business, how they make everyday decisions and how they interact with colleagues and customers.
In creating and communicating values clearly and concisely, you are telling employees, customers and business partners what they can expect from you and what you expect from them.
Deliver WOW Through Service (Zappos): "To WOW, you must differentiate yourself, which means doing something a little unconventional and innovative. You must do something that’s above and beyond what’s expected. And whatever you do must have an emotional impact on the receiver. We are not an average company, our service is not average, and we don’t want our people to be average. We expect every employee to deliver WOW."
Multiple research reports show that values impact business success in a variety of important ways.
One survey found that a company’s mission and culture are more important to job seekers than anything else. Over two thirds (77%) said they would consider a company’s culture and mission before applying, with over half saying culture is more important than salary.
Another survey tells a similar story, revealing that 71% would take a pay cut to work for a company that has shared values and a mission they believe in.
It’s the same for managers too. One report found that nine out of 10 managers (91%) say a person’s fit with organisational culture is equal to or more important than their skills and experience.
A key benefit of being a values-driven organisation is that it fosters alignment around goals. Alignment is critically important, but is unfortunately lacking in many organisations. Research suggests only 25% feel completely informed about their employer’s corporate mission and only 32% feel completely informed about the values of the organisation they work for.
If you want employees to help you achieve your company goals, then you need to foster alignment - with values and with goals. The good news is that it’s not as difficult as it might sound.
KEY POINT Your company already has values, even if they are not written down.
How to define corporate values
Your company already has values, even if they are not written down. They are defined daily by your senior leaders - particularly the CEO - in how they deal with employees, suppliers and customers. These behaviours are observed and adopted by others in the company.
The objective is to accurately discover and define your company’s actual, already-existing values, and give them a spot of fine-tuning - nothing more. In this sense it’s more a process of discovery than creation. This way when you finalise them, you’ll find they are understood and embraced - because they feel “right” and not “forced”.
The ultimate aim is to end up with a set of values that are highly individual to your company, expressed using your own style or voice.
We are geeks (Brewdog): "We’re not embarrassed to admit that we go deep down into the lore of craft beer. Into the science, the detail. To make other people as passionate about craft beer as we are, first we need to know as much as we can – to become beer-soaked sponges (as it were), absorbing and ingesting as much knowledge as we can. And then we pass it on. Helping others understand everything, from the basics to the in-depth minutiae, we are proud to share what we know at every stage."
Who to include
As much as it’s your company, if you employ people who you value and respect, and want to keep hold of, make sure you include them in the process. There’s no need to survey everyone in the company - pick a diverse group from different backgrounds, departments and levels of seniority. What do they think lies at the heart of the company’s approach and success? Why do they show up every day and work so hard on the company’s behalf? What do they value in their daily work?
Think about asking your customers and suppliers too. Why do they work with your company? What values and behaviours do they experience in their interactions with your employees?
Once you've gathered some data, it's time to bring together your core team in a workshop. It would also be useful to include at least one person who is skilled at copywriting.
Identifying your values
There’s no single “correct” way to develop and define values. However there are some methods and approaches that do work better than others.
This is an approach adapted from Jim Collins’ book Built to Last: Imagine you wanted to establish another office on Mars, and to do so you had to send your very best people, that you can be sure will set up and run that office exactly as you want - but space on the ship is limited, so you can only send eight people.
Think about the key people who really embody your company. Like a sample of the company’s genetic code, these should be the people who you would imagine have the company values imprinted in them like a stick of rock. They’re highly engaged, extremely competent and exceptionally credible with everyone they deal with.
- Why are they on the list?
- What are the qualities they bring?
- What makes them successful?
Write everything down using post-it notes, one item per post-it. This is, essentially, a rough version of your core values. The next step is to discuss these findings and refine them.
What to look out for
As you go through the process, you’ll likely identify or come up with several types of values.
- Existing: Deeply ingrained principles that have evolved over time and are currently present in your company
- Aspirational: Values that may not be fully present right now but you would like your company to develop in the future
- Table Stakes: Minimum behavioural standards (such as integrity, teamwork, authentic - surely every company should have these anyway)
- Unintended: Misplaced beliefs that harm your company (for example people think new ideas aren’t welcome)
It’s OK to have one or two aspirational values, but it’s important that as a whole they reflect your actual values as they exist currently. And if you do decide to use some of the “table stakes” values, add your own rationale and context to them - why are they uniquely important and distinctive to you and your stakeholders?
How to embed corporate values
After the workshop, dedicate a small group to finalise the values. Words and language are important, but don’t get too obsessed by which one word is right versus another. Ultimately the acid test will be how you live up to the values, not fancy turns of phrase or alliteration.
Each value ideally needs several behaviours or specifics - what it looks like when that value is being met, and what it looks like when it isn’t. Send them out to a select few - ideally a diverse group from different departments - to get initial feedback and tweak if necessary.
Then you're ready to roll out the values to the wider company. For the first month at least, your key team members need to champion the chosen values at every opportunity.
Transparency (GSK): "As our business evolves to meet global challenges, so does our culture – and transparency is integral to this. For us, transparency means being honest about what we do, how we do it and the challenges we face. We are open to challenge, to discussion and to improving how we work to reflect our values."
Focus on communication
Explain why these values are important, and what they will achieve. Give the context. Tell people about the process you went through, show your workings. Mention a few that didn’t make the cut and explain why.
Explain the values and the behaviours they should influence, and why these are important to your business, your customers and crucially, your people. They will be thinking “what does this mean for me?”
Netflix asks its employees to be “extraordinarily candid with one another” because “we will learn faster and be better if we can make giving and receiving feedback less stressful and a more normal part of work life.”
Consider running workshop-style training sessions where employees across the company can discuss and practice the behaviours outlined. Allow them to explore their own values and how they align with those of the company. Make sure senior people attend these sessions to role-model behaviours and demonstrate high-level support for the values.
TOP TIP Align recruitment processes with your values to attract candidates who will be intrinsically motivated to pursue your goals.
Leaders 'live' the values
Defining your values was the easy part. Now comes the important task of living and celebrating them so they become deeply embedded in your company’s ways of working.
This is important and shouldn’t be taken for granted - just 23% of US employees strongly agree that they can apply their organisation’s values to their work every day, and only 27% strongly agree that they “believe” in their organisation’s values. (Gallup)
The dangers of employees not living your values are real too - consider the cautionary tale of Enron, where values of “respect” and “integrity” failed to deter top executives from hiding billions of dollars in debt.
It’s not just about putting your values on your wall or your website. Leaders need to walk the walk and lead by example, consciously exhibiting the desired behaviours from each of your values. Any gaps between the values and what you actually do will erode trust and inhibit action. The more you can close that gap, the more people will be energised and empowered to act correctly on the company’s behalf.
Coming up with a list of values is the start of a transformational journey, not its conclusion. Come back to your values after a year to check if you got it completely right. Meet with your team again to review how things have gone.
How were the values received by your employees? Have you kept them front-of-mind as you have made decisions and appraised results? If there are lots of examples of how some values are being lived out and embodied, but you’re struggling to come up with any for others, consider the following possible reasons:
- You identified the wrong value
- You invented one which doesn’t match your company
- You haven’t done enough to embed it
If this is the case then it’s worth revisiting the process to make sure you have the right set of values. It’s important to have a set of values that work rather than to settle for something you may later regret.