When Do Your Company’s Values Matter?
The values of an organization always matter. However, they often don't match what is printed and posted on the wall. Adhering to the actual values of an organization is ultimately what leads to rewards (and violating them leads to punishment). Therefore, stating or showing the values is a valuable tool for leaders to propel the organization toward reaching its goals.
On a whim, I recently looked up Enron's values. I was…entertained. When Enron came tumbling down, the values present in their most recent annual report were Integrity, Communication, Respect, and Excellence¹. On the plus side, it's a shortlist. However, given the depth of its fall and abundance of evidence for all Enron did outside of the law, it's not likely these provided a guide to what was prized by leadership or helped the company reach its goals.
So how do you make your company's values matter?
One of the roles of leaders in an organization (and specifically the CEO) is "Head of People." They may not hire everyone, but they are responsible for pointing the team in the right direction and creating leverage wherever they can. Three things frame how your values should work:
1. Guide decision-making.
When faced with a difficult choice, your values should advise the right path. I believe the Vision and Values should act like a compass pointing you toward the organization's goals. One of my favorite values that I have seen in action is "Stewardship." It's a broad term, but its application really made the difference. This company took to heart that they were stewards of the capital provided by their investors. They needed to either choose a safe, moderately rewarded path or a riskier path with higher rewards. Stewardship could have meant preserving the capital invested. However, the investors intended to seek high returns (and accept associated risk). Being a steward of their investors' capital informed their decision-making and led them toward the higher reward path more in line with the intention of their investors.
2. Be few. (I think three is a great number!)
If the team can't remember the values, then they are not much of a guide. We are pretty good at remembering three things but bad at remembering nine. If the list is short, there is a much greater likelihood they will influence decision-making in the desired direction. An employee should not just be able to regurgitate the values but should be able to say what the values mean to their job.
3. Not be aspirational.
We all want to be better. But values should reflect what is essential to an organization. If a value is "Customer-Driven," yet the organization consistently makes decisions that don't consider the customer, citing that value doesn't provide helpful guidance.
Your values communicate primarily to your employees, but they should also tell your investors, customers, suppliers, and the world what is important. I'm sure the folks at Enron felt what they came up with had good marketing value, but it was ultimately an empty promise.
Your values can be a beneficial tool. Recognize what you can and cannot do with them and make sure the time you spend on them is worthwhile.
About Matt Sitter
As CEO of the Advantage Foundry Network (AFN), Matt is passionate about optimizing team collaboration and harnessing the power of networks, has led a wide variety of functional areas, and served on multiple executive management teams. Matt received his BA from Brown University and MBA from the Tuck School at Dartmouth.