Communication, Respect, Integrity… these sound great words don’t they.
Strong, to the point and with genuine meaning. They may reflect your own personal values. They may accurately describe the genuine values of your company.
But what if they don’t? What if they are empty meaningless statements that whilst look pretty cool on a coaster or poster actually do more harm than good? What if these statements are seen as bland corporate drivel that is creating cynicism amongst employees and undermining the credibility of managers and leaders?
If this is the outcome then why bother? Why do CEOs put so much focus on having a ‘strong core set of values’ in the first place? The truthful answer sadly is that in most cases it’s because they believe it’s something they should be seen to be doing, without understanding the true strength of genuine values Nowadays values are shared publicly on every company website, almost as part of the branding exercise (google any Fortune Top 100 company and its likely the first thing you will see!).
This perception can be a massive shame, not only in that the resulting launch creates cynicism (videos of colleagues smiling awkwardly and saying what a particular value means to them anyone?) but mainly because it wastes a great opportunity.
Meaningful values can set your business apart from everyone else. Create an identity that is synonymous with the business, its people, and you create the magic that makes for an amazing environment.
So how do you ensure that this happens in your business?
Here are 5 points you might want to consider…
1. No pain no gain
Coming up with a strong set of values and sticking to them requires guts, real guts. Not fake assertiveness, actual guts!
A business must understand that, when first put into practice, values can actually inflict pain. They could make some employees feel like outcasts. They could limit an organisation’s strategic and operational freedom and constrain the behaviour of its people. They leave leadership teams open to heavy criticism for even minor violations. And they demand constant vigilance.
If you’re not willing to accept the pain real values incur, don’t bother going to the trouble of formulating a values statement. You’ll be better off without one.
But if you have the fortitude to see the effort through, you can adopt meaningful corporate values that engender commitment at all levels.
2. Authentic DNA from the top down
The leadership team in any organisation needs to truly reflect the values of the business and vice versa. Values are not an initiative, a marketing launch, a onetime event, measured by reaction or KPIs. And for a values statement to be authentic, it needn’t belong on a Hallmark card or Instagram post.
Take the recent resurgence at Leeds United Football Club. A unique, complex and obsessional Argentinian Manager named Marcello Bielsa has taken the Club’s culture and values, and turned then on their head.
Bielsa is obsessed with, well just about everything! The competition (opponents),the environment (new bedrooms have been put in to encourage player siestas), and most importantly, values and culture.
Players have been asked to collect litter near the training facility for 3 hours. He did this presumably to help them understand at a deep level, that the world is not made up of people living in elitist and privileged bubbles; but rather "normal" human beings who have to work, on average 3 hours to be able afford a match day ticket and frequently have to do things they would rather not.
Bielsa realises that, on the pitch; the decisions are made by the players so there has to be a certain level of independence, born of instinct and natural talent. And he believes that over time a coach can dictate those decisions to make them part of players' DNA.
All this is without the need to promote a set of obviously worded core values. Employees from the admin officers to external contractors, all want to be part of what is happening. There is a buzz at the club - something special is in the air and they want to be a part of it. It's all about setting high standards that will stay with the club long after he has gone. He has changed the culture of the club for good.
3. Weave them in… everywhere
So, let’s say you’ve got a handle on the true DNA of the business and have nailed the right values.
If your core values are going to really take hold in your organisation, they need to be integrated into every employee-related process—hiring method, every performance management system, the criteria for promotions and rewards, and even dismissal policies.
From the first interview to the last day of work, employees should be constantly reminded that core values form the basis for every decision the company makes.
Marks and Spencer, for example, are committed to the 4 core values of Inspiration, Innovation, Integrity, and In Touch. These are key to the way they work and interact with customers, suppliers and colleagues across the business and underpin their customer promise of making every moment special.
The business uses promotional material to attract candidates that identify with their own values, and then uses the on-boarding process to then bring these values to life further. They are front and central throughout the employee’s time at M&S through objective setting, personal development and career progression. Senior leaders attend training workshops and sessions, and interact with other delegates in a natural way that removes barriers, encourages engagement and ensures values grow organically.
4. Owned and grown
After a company has embedded its values into its systems, it should promote those values at every turn. It’s been said that employees will not believe a message until they’ve heard it repeated by a senior leader seven times. Given the cynicism surrounding values these days, executives would do well to repeat them every chance they get.
Many companies publicise their values on T-shirts and coffee mugs, but the most effective mechanisms are far simpler and less expensive.
Ownership of values should be across the whole business but the demonstration of this ownership can be incredibly powerful when visible across a leadership team.
Senior leaders should be the ones talking about values, demonstrating those values and listening to others. If this is solely driven by HR or an Internal Comms team, it will be delivered well in terms of look and feel but will not have anywhere near the same impact.
Like the Bielsa example above, employees will want to embrace a culture where they not only see a genuine passion and commitment in place; but also see that being lived daily by the leadership team.
5. Get on with it
Don’t ever stop involving the team with values and culture. Make sure that your people are the living embodiment of your values.
That’s why launching company values is so different to creating a performance management culture. Definitions of performance, alongside the ability to give balanced feedback and developmental support absolutely needs to be top down. Values, on the other hand, need to be much more organic in their growth.
If Dave from Accounts has an idea of what that value means to him and is happy to share it at a team briefing, let him. Likewise, if company intranets or internal media platforms like Yammer, offer teams and individuals the opportunity to post blogs or use imagery, let them. They’ll do you proud, given the opportunity and confidence.
So you see, given all the hard work that goes into developing and implementing a solid values system, most companies would probably prefer not to bother. And indeed, some probably shouldn’t, because poorly implemented values can poison a company’s culture.
Make no mistake:- living by stated corporate values is difficult. After all, it’s much harder to be clear and unapologetic for what you stand for than to cave in to politically correct pressures. And for organisations trying to repair the damage caused by bad values programs, the work is even harder.
On the other hand, provided you are willing to devote time and energy to creating authentic values; there’s a very good chance that the resulting values will put your company ahead of the field.