Unlock the true value of your values

Posted in Engagement on 2 March 2020 By Jo Wade, Communications Consultant

When developed in a meaningful way, corporate values can be a powerful competitive advantage.

If I was being cynical, I would be tempted to argue that corporate values were a load of superficial corporate waffle. And I don’t reckon I’d have to look too far to find a lot more sceptics who’d agree with this opinion. But that’s because in many cases, we’d be absolutely right.

For someone who deals routinely in the world of employee engagement this might seem controversial but stick with me for a minute…

Corporate values, when they’re nothing more than a set of generic, uninspiring words stuck up on a wall (as they often are), are completely pointless.

However, when they are developed in an inclusive and meaningful way, they can be extremely effective in influencing and galvanising your workforce around a central ethos and protecting you from reputational issues and ethical breaches. A strong set of values can set you apart from the competition, act as a powerful recruitment and engagement tool and be a clear differentiator with suppliers, investors and wider stakeholders.

A strong set of values can set you apart from the competition and act as a powerful recruitment and engagement tool.

Whatever your opinion on the matter, with regulation now demanding that UK listed companies articulate their values and explain how they support and align to corporate purpose and strategy, they can no longer be dismissed. Instead, embrace and invest in them as a cornerstone of your culture. 

Three golden rules to creating meaningful values

Your values should be bespoke, reflecting the type of organisation you are but also motivating the behaviours that will help you to succeed. There are no rules regarding what is good or bad, but the approach you take in developing them is crucial to finding a set of values that will resonate with and be advocated by your workforce.

1. Be authentic

Your values must reflect the personality and beliefs of your people. It’s no good getting your Executive Committee in a room to determine your values from the top down, because if they don’t understand the views of your employees, it will seem disingenuous.

Employees – across a range of ages, tenures, departments, hierarchies and locations (including those who have flexible working) – need to be consulted in the process. It’s fine to supplement this with one or two values that are more aspirational from a management perspective, but if employees don’t recognise their own organisation, that’s a problem.

Conducting a survey is one way of reaching a large population but holding focus groups is often the best way to really understand the nuances of an organisation. Face to face engagement often provides the real gems; the compelling anecdotes and a better understanding of language that resonates – for example, employees may be more likely to talk about ‘helping each other’, rather than ‘collaboration’.

It can also be a way to gauge existing behaviours, such as timekeeping, confidence in speaking up and so on, all of which are cultural indicators themselves. 

You might already have a set of values in place and, if so, there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bath water, but it’s still good practice to test them periodically. Are they universally recognised throughout the business and, more importantly, understood? They might simply need a renewed focus, but alternatively they might no longer be fit for purpose. Only by talking to employees will you know the answers to these questions.

2. Make them memorable

There’s a temptation when developing values to include absolutely everything but the kitchen sink. When asked to distil your values, it can be very difficult to eliminate key concepts because they all seem relevant and critical. That’s where dialogue with employees can really help as it’s likely to highlight your priority areas.

Experience tells us that three to five values is usually most effective. Any more and they become challenging to recall; any fewer and your scope is too limited. Wordplay such as alliteration or mnemonics can be useful to help colleagues remember them, although caution should be exercised to ensure this doesn’t feel clichéd or forced.

It’s also important to describe the supporting behaviours that underpin your values; the expectations on a day to day basis. Include enough detail to adequately explain what they mean in practice, without overwhelming. 

The language should reflect your organisation and feel appropriate. While words such as ‘integrity’, ‘innovation’ and ‘teamwork’ can seem a bit pedestrian, they are simple to understand and may be fitting for an organisation that is more traditional or formal in the way it communicates. However, more daring language can make a message more memorable and help people engage, and might be suitable for creative or fast-moving companies. For example, alternative ways that have been used to express the above concepts include: ‘Be real’ (Coca Cola), ‘Daring to be different’ (IKEA), ‘We, not I’ (ARM).

Masonite, a company that make doors, take this a step further and employ a play on words to illustrate their values: 

  • People are Key 

  • Hold the Door Open

  • Flexibility in Every Fiber

  • On the Threshold of What’s Next

  • Integrity Under Pressure

Assuming this has been developed based on a sound understanding of what is important to the organisation, and is not just an excuse to incorporate a series of door-based puns, this is a lovely example of how bespoke language has been used to ‘frame’ a company’s values (sorry, I couldn’t resist!)

3. Lead by example

It sounds obvious, but even the most well-intentioned set of values will never be embraced if they are not supported at the highest level of the organisation. It’s vital the CEO plays an active role in launching them and underlines their importance. The C-suite must embody the values and exhibit them in their own behaviour. It’s no good one of your values being ‘effective communication’ if your CEO sits in their office all day and never connects with the workforce. A clear signal that values are genuinely important is if they are linked to directors’ remuneration schemes – although they can be tricky to determine and measure.

While sponsorship by your executive team is fundamental, in terms of walking the walk, it’s just as important for senior and middle management. As role models and the primary conduit between the leadership and wider organisation, they are highly influential. They need to be fully sold on the value of your values.

Ultimately, the most powerful advocate for your values are your employees, generally. One way to help build enthusiasm for values is to appoint champions to promote their importance and encourage others to get involved with related internal campaigns, workshops or training sessions that you run across the year.

Development is just the start, activation is key 

Once you’ve defined your values, you need a strong internal communications plan that can take you from launch, through a whole year of activity and beyond. This will really help deliver benefit and embed your values into the company.

Don’t under estimate the importance of creating a buzz when you roll them out! I can still remember the afternoon our values were launched in my first proper job, nearly 20 years ago. My whole regional office, over 500 people, gathered at a hotel for the big reveal from the CEO. Everyone got a lottery ticket to illustrate the point that our success as a company was not down to random chance but dependent on us pulling together behind the positive culture set out in our new values.

If your budgets are more modest, your launch doesn’t have to involve a lavish affair. It could be done via a webcast from the CEO, a short video or homepage takeover supported by a booklet or employee pack. There are a huge range of inventive ways to launch values but the key is to ensure that all employees receive an engaging and consistent message from day one.

Following the launch, it’s important to check in and make sure that the message has been understood. This is where your champions network can really come into play, explaining the values’ relevance for individuals, helping to maintain focus and ensure they become synonymous with your everyday cultural approach. By incorporating your values into reward and recognition programmes it will also mean that employees receive tangible benefits from demonstrating these behaviours and show that they are more than just a set of worthy words. 

Reaping the rewards

Getting real value from your values is not a quick win. If you’re not prepared to make a serious investment in this area, your values will always have at least a hint of insincerity about them.

Only by taking the time to understand employee views, what makes you special and by implementing an effective and ongoing communications campaign will your values become intrinsic to the way people work.

In my opinion, this is a worthwhile outlay. It creates the foundations for a culture that will help your business to perform more effectively and efficiently, foster a great place to work and attract the best talent with the right cultural fit. It won’t happen overnight but as employees become true advocates for your values, they will also be minded to protect and enhance what may in fact become your most valuable competitive advantage. 

To find out more about how we can help you to define, communicate and embed your corporate values, please get in touch with [email protected].

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