1. Values are inclusive.
One thing that often makes these corporate values so lifeless is that they are impersonal and removed from the people that they actually affect. They are planned in boardrooms full of executives and often have no direct connection to the people who will be carrying them out in the everyday.
This approach to values stems from the myth that the people who are best placed to describe and disseminate an organization’s values are those at the top. It is only once ‘those who know best’ have determined what the values are that they are then passed down through the organization in the form of well-polished statements and platitudes. These imposed values tend to be announced and then quickly forgotten.
If the actions and decisions of individuals within an organization are to be truly values-driven, those individuals must have some input and involvement in the articulation of values in the first place. Who gets a seat at the table in your company’s conversations surrounding values?
2. Values are idiosyncratic.
Another all-too-common myth surrounding values is that there are those that every company should have. While there are many words and themes that crop up repeatedly in value statements, there are no automatically right and wrong values for an organization or brand to have.
Consider how some of the world’s most iconic and trusted brands articulate their values:
Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream
- We strive to minimize our negative impact on the environment.
- We strive to show a deep respect for human beings inside and outside our company and for the communities in which they live.
- We seek and support nonviolent ways to achieve peace and justice. We believe government resources are more productively used in meeting human needs than in building and maintaining weapons systems.
- We strive to create economic opportunities for those who have been denied them and to advance new models of economic justice that are sustainable and replicable.
- We support sustainable and safe methods of food production that reduce environmental degradation, maintain the productivity of the land over time, and support the economic viability of family farms and rural communities.
- Humbleness and willpower.
- Leadership by example.
- Daring to be different.
- Togetherness and enthusiasm.
- Constant desire for renewal.
- Accept and delegate responsibility.
What emerges from these lists is the enormous diversity in the values that trusted and iconic brands describe as core. It is also clear that there is no correct level of simplicity or detail in articulating these values. They are unique to the brands, because they arise directly from them.
The most powerful value statements don’t reach for catchy phrases or buzzwords, but they articulate simply and clearly what is genuinely important to the company. They are defined by the unique personality of the organisation and are integrated into its DNA.
It is not what an organization’s core values are that matters – but rather the fact that the organization has core values, knows what those values are and allows their decisions and strategy to be guided by them.
3. Values are implemented.
Core to both of the aforementioned factors is the idea that values exist in your company, whether you have articulated them or not. Articulating a company’s values is not a matter of looking outward to discover impressive value statements to impose on the organisation, rather a matter of looking inward to uncover the values that already define the organisation’s action.
The values of an organization are not something that you have to work out – they are already being outworked every day. To espouse core values that are not authentic to the company’s action will inevitably lead to cynicism and distrust. A dangerous dynamic unfolds when an organization’s stated values don’t match the reality, and there is no faster way to erode a customer’s or employee’s trust.
Of course the principle of action-centred values goes both ways – values arise from action, but action must then reflect values. This was a truth that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz had to confront when he returned to the company’s helm in 2007. After privately expressing concern that despite its success Starbucks was losing site of its culture and values, Schultz took the unprecedented step of closing all 7,100 Starbucks stores in North America for three hours on the evening of Feb 26, 2010, to retrain about 135,000 in-store employees. It was a shock to the system and a public admission that the business needed to go back to its core.
Even more impressively, Schultz took the step of gathering all Starbucks store managers together in New Orleans for further retraining at a cost of $7 million. In an effort to model the core values Schultz was hoping to galvanize companywide, every store manager was expected to put in five hours of community service helping Hurricane Katrina victims before the training sessions commenced. Schultz describes how this focus on community service went to the core of the Starbucks’ DNA which was that of a company “attentive to the fragile balance between profitability and social conscience”.
Whether it means values are revisited or action is reoriented, the bottom line remains: actions and values must always align.
The process of articulating values does not need to feel abstract or removed from the company – in fact, it shouldn’t. The most powerful and effective values are those that are inclusive of the people they affect, idiosyncratic and authentic to the company, and implemented in the organisation’s everyday action.
Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.
He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 9 books. His most recent book The New Now examines the 10 trends that will dominate a post-COVID world and how to prepare for them now.
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 Collins, J & Porras, J. 1994, Built to Last, HarperCollins, New York, p. 8.
 Ibid, p. 222.
 This is an excerpt from a presentation delivered by Howard Schultz on April 21, 2011 as part of a publicity tour for his new book ‘Onward’