Is there any value to values?

Is there any value to values?

Unless your principles are memorable, demonstrable and authentic you’re probably better off without them.

Many small companies pride themselves on having values that help to define the culture of the company and set the standard for the behaviour of their staff. Such a “value set” is often seen as an element of differentiation; “it’s what sets us apart”. When the values themselves are sifted down, usually during a workshop, they can have a familiar ring. The three most common? I hardly need tell you: integrity, passion, fun. (Or, their first cousins, honesty, commitment, humour).

Aside from the fact that, in many cases, these are just entry money, they hardly set anyone apart. And do your clients care that you’re having fun, unless you’re a company that organises clown parties?  Do “values” serve any purpose at all?

One way to look at this is that it’s not values that drive behaviour, but behaviour that drives values. One CEO made the point that he would never claim as a value anything for which he could not identify at least three evidenced behaviours. If you really believe in integrity then do you, for example, always pay your suppliers on time? Do you own up to mistakes, and take action to correct them? (As the advertising great, Bill Bernbach, said: “it’s only a principle when it costs you money”).

How does your passion manifest itself? Do you, like Google, give staff members two weeks off in the business to work on projects of personal interest? At one Ad agency, working on the nursing recruitment campaign, the Account Manager spent one day a month working as a volunteer in a local hospital. That’s passion.

The use of values by businesses can be a legitimate tool to articulate “what makes this business great” beyond the transactional nature of commercial success. Often it’s better expressed via a single statement of principle. “Do the right thing” is an exhortation that everyone can remember. One of our favourites is a client whose core principle is “It’s all about us”. You read that correctly. It stemmed from the very start of the business, when the founders settled on the idea that, “as long as we stick together, work hard, recruit like-minded people and look out for each other, we have the talent to be successful”, and it’s carried through into a company that now employs several thousand people. “Say it how it is” and “Thirst for knowledge” are two other clear principles that one company we work with has had printed on to a mouse mat and distributed across the business.

The fact is, the values in a small business are essentially those of the founders or directors. Their approach and beliefs will drive the way the business operates. However you approach it, there are two questions you always need to ask: can we demonstrate this value through behaviours in our business, and by our leadership team and; are there any of our behaviours that run counter to these values? Dear reader, if you end up with “integrity”, “passion” or “fun” as your principles, you may want to go back and start again.