Values: Why Most Companies Get It Wrong

Have you heard about the fast growth Houston, Texas company that had their core values etched in stone in their lobby? Integrity was at the top. Still struggling to remember? They became really famous.

It was Enron.

Epic level value failures like Enron show up frequently in the news.

Yet, in many organizations, company values fail more quietly. People don’t flagrantly violate them, but they don’t really live them either.

Too often organizational values are nothing more than an exercise in corporate speak. When I ask employees what their company values are, I usually get stumbling answers, like, “Uh, I think, um, innovation, and something about accountability. Hmm, I can’t remember the rest; I think there are 7. Wait, let me check our website.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. We have several clients whose values drive daily behavior and differentiate them in competitive markets. There are three key reasons most company values don’t stick:

  1. Too many nebulous words – Once you get past three or four values, you’re just rambling. If you want people to focus you need to identify 2 – 4 critically important values that represent the true essence of who you want your organization to be.
  2. No actionable behavior – Words like innovation and efficiency are nice, but they don’t actually tell people what to do. When we work with organizations, we help them turn their values into behaviors. For example, we were working with the executive team of a financial organization whose three core values are: Integrity, Teamwork, and Client-driven. To make these values actionable, we translated them into three measurable coachable behaviors:
  • Integrity: We treat each other with respect
  • Teamwork: We see problems through to a solution
  • Client-driven: We always ask, “How will this affect the client?”

The three behaviors were the result of an executive team discussion about:

  • Where the organization needs improvement
  • Which behaviors will have the biggest impact on the business
  • What kind of behaviors will apply to every single employee from the CEO to the front line

For example, it’s one thing to say you’re client-driven. It’s another thing for leaders to ask, “How will this affect clients?” before they make decisions or implement policies.

  1. No stretch behaviors
    Our company values don’t include honesty. It’s not because we’re dishonest. It’s the opposite. We don’t struggle with honesty. We do however, struggle with trying to do too much too quickly with people who aren’t ready. That’s why one of our core values is: We meet people where they are. Living up to this value is a challenge almost every single day. That’s the point.

    Organizational values should help you and your team step into something bigger than you might be otherwise. Done well, your values drive daily behavior and they differentiate you from the competition.

Your core values should define you. Much like the values many of us learned in childhood, your core values are what you draw on during times of trouble and indecision. You don’t have to be a big company to define your values.  We defined our values when we were a company of three.

Whether you have three people or 30,000, taking the time to identify who you are and what you stand for is critical. Times will change, events will happen. Your values are the constant that see you through.

Lisa McLeod is the global expert in Noble Purpose. She is a keynote speaker and consultant who help leaders increase competitive differentiation and emotional engagement.  She is the author of the bestsellers Selling with Noble Purpose and Leading with Noble Purpose.  Her clients include Google, Flight Centre and Roche.