In our work around the world we see lots and lots of organisations grappling with the need to demonstrate to the wider world that they are ‘values-led’. We have experienced companies going through huge internal consultation and workshop-led processes to define and commit to a list of values that they think reflect who they are and how they behave internally and externally.
In the years following the financial crisis and the subsequent waves of scandal and malpractice that have so often questioned corporate ethics and values, many companies have felt it important to publicly commit to a statement that expresses their position as evidence that they are putting right what to many seemed so wrong.
In preparing these values statements, some companies have spent a huge amount of time drafting the words, yet not very much time understanding their organisation. One of the primary functions of reflecting and living to a set of values is to ensure that the whole organisation is aligned. Working on a perfect draft of the words without understanding the nature of the alignment challenge of your organisation is, in our experience, an expensive waste of time at best and a fragmenting cynicism inducing process at worst.
Internal conversations about values - quite simply about what is valued in an organisation - are incredibly powerful and potentially transformative dialogues. Many companies we have worked with regard these dialogues as hugely affirming and aligning.
To be clear, it is impossible to create values or impose values on people. The process of aligning an organisation through values is largely the process of discovering those values. Questions which help discover those values include:
- What values would you regard as so fundamental to your life that they reflect an unshakable commitment?
- What values would you expect your organisation to still hold true to in 100 years time?
- If you were to create a new organisation what values would you bake in from the start?
For too many organisations we see that a stated list of organisational values are simply aspirational, things that senior leaders would like their organisations to be. For others, values statements are little more than marketing messages that support a rather hollow view of brand.
Jim Collins, who wrote the seminal work Good to Great, discusses these issues with precision in a blog post that is essentially concerned with creating organisational alignment but touches on values. He says
Every institution—whether for-profit or not—has to wrestle with a vexing question: What should change and what should never change? It’s a matter of distinguishing timeless core values from operating practices and cultural norms. Timeless core values should never change; operating practices and cultural norms should never stop changing.
Jim Collins, Aligning Action and Values, blog post, 2000 www.jimcollins.com
Recently, I facilitated a session with a large group of senior managers who had come together to discuss the importance of values to their company and how they could ensure that their values were being ‘lived’ by everyone across their organisation. The list of values we were working with had emerged from a 3-day off-site several months earlier in which I had had no involvement. This session was convened because of a sense that there was more work to do to ‘embed’ the values in peoples’ behaviour.
One of the values on a list of 5 was ‘Respect’. We decided to explore how individual behavior might reflect ‘Respect’ for customers and each other. Drawing on some research from other clients I suggested some simple indicators. One of these related to internal meetings. Showing respect to colleagues in the context of internal meetings might mean ‘showing up on time’, ‘have read the supporting papers and agenda’, ‘not sending someone else to a meeting in your place at the last minute’ and so on.
A painful and difficult conversation ensued where it became clear that most of the people in the room had issues with each other in terms of their behaviour around internal meetings. On these measures the senior managers present were not exhibiting these basic indicators of ‘Respect’ for their colleagues. Our session took a very different course and we ended up in a better place (eventually) with a more robust view of the problems of organisational alignment.
Successful organisations recruit largely on the basis of values, ensuring that personal and organisational values are aligned at the outset.
At Impact our founder and CEO David Williams does just that when he recruits new people into the business, hugely successfully. Which is one reason why Impact is such a great place to work.
If you want to know Impact’s values don’t search for them on the website. Just spend some time with any one of us.
In a world where we have so brutally commoditised and instrumentalised so much, connecting to and living through our personal values in our work is vital. This connection can revitalise and reenergise our relationship with work so that it becomes an expression of who we are as opposed to a bland description of what we do.
David Williams is Impact's Founder and CEO.