Flashy nouns emblazoned across office walls. Is that all corporate values are good for these days?
Unlike your favourite investment strategy, your business values shouldn't be set-and-forget. They should be unique, actionable and ordered. It's worth spending the time to figure out your values because they show up in everything you do. For example, what does it say about your values if you only choose to buy recycled paper for your office printer? Or what about if you're stingy with your time when a customer makes it clear they're not ready to buy today?
Every interaction you have with others tells them a little bit more about who your business is. And whether you like it or not, it's those other people who determine your brand, not you. So what you can do to put your best foot forward?
For values to be beneficial, they need to be well planned and focused. The best values provide a framework that supports the behaviours that are important to you and your customers. Poor values, in contrast, may look pretty but won't help you land on how to sign off an email.
Here are some examples of good corporate values from businesses doing great work:
On the other end of the spectrum, here are some examples of crappy values:
If you can find one of your values on this list, you’re doing it wrong.
The good examples have three things that set them apart from the bad. The good values are attributable, actionable and ordered. Focusing on one of these factors will make your values much stronger. Addressing all three is where the magic happens. Let's start with what it means for a value to be attributable.
A value is attributable if it could only ever describe your business. See ‘Integrity’ up there in the bad pile? It sucks because thousands of companies could (and do) use that as one of their own values. (Denise Yohn has a great article on the plague of 'Integrity' that you should definitely read.)
Take a look at Fiasco Gelato’s value from earlier:
Without experiencing their products, we already get a sense of who they are. They care about how they treat their customers, their neighbours and the environment. Very straightforward. Upon further research we also discover that Fiasco intentionally keeps their organisation small. That allows them to manage and provide the perfect gelato experience for their customers every time. They also buy local ingredients and make their packaging from 100% recycled PET plastic.
Do their behaviours align with their value? You bet they do. And as a result we can attribute "We are connected to our customers, community and environment" to Fiasco Gelato.
Before even engaging with them, customers know what they're in for and that's a good thing. But there’s more to a value than it simply being unique and relevant, it also has to provide guidance on decisions.
A unique value that fails to provide guidance is merely decoration. Consider the example of a business wrestling with an important process decision. They have a new system to put in place which will save costs in the long run but it will take time for employees to adjust to. For many businesses this is a tough choice. Not so for Wikipedia.
A quick review of their values provides them with the answer they need. Opt for improvement. As soon as they see “Improvements over rules” their decision is made. This is what an actionable value looks like. It helps you make tough decisions so that you can maintain the standards of your business.
And that's why, just like 'Integrity', 'Innovation' is a terrible value. It’s almost impossible to apply to a business decision because it lacks specificity.
Consider the case of a business with $10,000 to invest in one department. Finance wants the money to build new systems that will speed up their reporting. Human Resources wants the money to hire a consultant and improve the working conditions for employees. Which department do you go with?
With 'Innovation' at the helm, it's impossible to choose. Who's to say which option is more innovative? If instead your value was “We innovate so that our people are taken care of” the answer would be clear. Go with Human Resources and everyone will understand why you did.
Unless your values are specific and meaningful you won’t be able to take action with them. And if you can't take action on them, they'll only harm your brand and your employees.
The third factor that determines the effectiveness of your values is order. Order is also the factor that’s most often ignored. Typical businesses have between three and six values. Zappos, the online shoe retailer, has ten:
As they stand, it would be impossible for an employee in customer service to know how to act. Yes, these values feel true to Zappos and are actionable, but there are so damn many of them. How does this employee decide between delivering a great experience (dot-point one) and saving company resources (dot-point eight)?
With an order:
Now it's easy to see that when two values are in opposition, the higher ranked value takes precedence. Your employees no longer need to debate which value to prioritise and can continue delighting your customers.
By making your values attributable, actionable and ordered, you can put your business decisions on autopilot. It's also easier to maintain authenticity and it keeps your organisation working towards the goals that matter.
Spend the time developing your values now and reap the benefits for years to come.
Modular is a business to consumer brand consultancy based in Perth, Western Australia.