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Blog : Values made simple


Values made simple

By Jane Sunley - CEO

Company values are the definition of an organisation’s culture and subject of a research document we produced earlier this year (view here).

Put very simply we discovered a number of common scenarios:

  1. Values / culture defined and understood
  2. Values / culture defined and misunderstood
  3. Values / culture undefined though people deliver a strong culture as if by ‘osmosis’
  4. Values / culture not defined and not delivered.

The majority of businesses we come across; ’cool’ or ‘growth’ brands (or both), view having a strong culture as vital in defining their competitive advantage as business and employer. However many fall into two - four above. And few know how to make this happen.

There is a view that the defining of a culture should be a team affair whereby everyone in the organisation is involved. In my view, this is not the way to go. I’d be the first person to champion communication, empowerment and involvement. However there are times when the leadership team has to set the agenda. And this is one of them.  People need clear direction – they look to the leaders for inspiration and clarity.

Which behaviours are important to the way you do business?

Sitting an executive team down and getting them to define their culture would, you might think, be a fairly straightforward process. However it is only when questions are asked that many different beliefs and viewpoints come to the fore, pain often ensues and it may take some unravelling of history / beliefs / viewpoints to reach a clear outcome that everyone can committ to. This is the hard bit, though essential, if you want to define your culture. I love it when a CEO takes the lead, comes up with his / her version and then tweaks with the team as required. Or uses an external facilitator to ask the hard-hitting, right questions which combine thinking around the table and achieve the desired outcome quickly and efficiently. The business needs to be run therefore it’s better to take a well-considered though quick and practical approach, than spend swathes of time and money constructing your values.

Values can only be delivered if the top team live and breathe them – so they have to be bought in to by all and the values statement has to be memorable. Stick to a few simple words, make them into an acronym or find another very easy way to bring them to mind. Remember if the CEO is unable to recall them then no one else will either.

 They can only be lived by if people understand what they mean;this is where the work comes in. Everyone is responsible and so everyone needs to understand three things:

  • What the values are
  • What they mean to them “What behaviours will I demonstrate to live these values?”
  • How they will know they’re delivering ‘What’s the evidence?”

And it’s important to keep reiterating, communicating, refreshing. To keep using them in meetings, when making decisions, in recruitment and beyond…

Suppose one of your values is ‘Freedom”, it’s important to define the framework; what scope and the limits are. In a fast-moving, commercial business, total freedom isn’t going to be an option as compromises must always be made. If someone is told one of the company values is ‘freedom’ without defining what that means in the context of organisation, team and individual, you can understand how they could seriously misconstrue its meaning.

So this is where the effort needs to be put in and this is what must be revisited time and time again.

Don’t be an organisation that stands up at company conferences or runs roadshows to ‘tell’ the values instead, give people time to work through what they mean and how they’ll deliver. Involve your people  and show true leadership.

What are your experiences of value setting and communication?




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