Values are a company’s engine room — you won’t go anywhere without them

VC funding

I’ve never understood the phrase “we live our values”.

A value is how you do things — it underpins behaviour. Almost by definition, it is something you live.

If there’s stuff you call values that don’t fit that definition, they aren’t values.

I know people say it to draw a line between the haze of things people claim as values but aren’t by any measure things they do. Last week I was sent an article that shared an excellent example of a company who had done the work to find their values and are making them part of their how.

It’s always refreshing to read about honest intent in action. In the interview, the CEO says: “We worked with the team to get really clear on what our core values were. Not our aspirations and not generic terms like ‘honesty’; that’s just table stakes. Culture has to go beyond that. We needed to understand the behaviours that we wanted to see in all of our staff, our DNA if you like.”

I like the term DNA and have often used it, especially with organisations who have an allergy to the very idea of values due to the generic ‘should have’ nonsense around. Let’s face it, while you can barely find a company who doesn’t tout their values (usually on their web site, walls and in employee manuals) many fail to do the deep work to understand — let alone use — their values as a foundation for how they do things.

To learn more about why all values have a dark side  yes even yours  click here.

Small and medium businesses certainly have an advantage over large enterprises when it comes to questions of values and culture. The chance to reach out and talk to every person in concrete terms about what you believe and how it connects to their work every day, however, quickly becomes a victim of scale.

As your organisation fractures into sections or teams, micro-climates can emerge within even the most robust value sets. Here, discussions about values will mostly relate to hiring and culture, contributing to the pattern.

Back to our CEO: “We spend a lot of time ensuring people understand how we work together, build our teams, avoid a silo mentality, and stay aligned. We work towards the same goals, measure the impact we’re having, and hold each other accountable.”

And yes, that’s where to start.

Still, it doesn’t always help people to understand the day-to-day relationship to how you do things, especially as size and complexity grow. What things? Everything.

Along with the bedfellow of purpose, values make up your organisation’s identity. And while purpose is all about what’s most important, it is the values which put it in action. They are the engine room. So when talking about values, go beyond discussions of team and accountability.

Encourage people to ask (and keep asking) a whole slew of how-based questions. How do our values show up in our products and services? How do they inform the promises we’re making? How should we change the experience we deliver given X value? How do they shape who our customers are? How are they a competitive disadvantage?

That last question is the clincher. If you’re never forced to look long and hard at a trade you can’t make because your values are in the way, then chances are, they aren’t your values.

The values you won’t trade, and won’t compromise on, are central to a robust, resilient brand result — no matter what size organisation you are.

See you next week.

NOW READ: “People are greater than perks”: Why founders need to make sure their culture evolves as their startup does

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