Values, and in particular, company values can be in danger of being seen as another of those vague and rather self-indulgent whims of HR departments. Yet I see them as absolutely vital element of any company’s drive for success.

A value is not strictly about what we do, but how we do it – what is expected of us in terms of drive, focus and dealing with people. I was musing on this recently when a friend of mine said she was struggling to get one of her children to be committed to school – she tended to get convenient headaches whenever life got a little bit challenging. In our household, my children have to be almost comatose before they’re allowed to stay off school. We expect them to go, we expect them to do their homework, and we expect them to work through any problems. For me this is about values. It’s only when you get to know other families, or if you move to a new organisation, that you realise just how much the values of any given environment influence behaviour.

So what is a ‘value’? I once heard it described as something you can’t put in a wheelbarrow and push around, and I’ve always found that quite useful. For example, newly qualified mechanical engineering graduates might say that money is a value, and the more of it the better. Well quite obviously lots of money can be piled into a wheelbarrow and pushed around. When questioned further, these young engineers were able to be clearer about what the money would give them that was important – eg choice, status, a feeling of self-worth. When it was pointed out that if it were money alone that was the goal, they could work offshore on an oil rig, or perhaps in one of the more dangerous regions of the world, and earn lots of cash. Actually it became apparent to most of them that their values of work-life balance or continual learning were more important.

We all have values as individuals, as families, as groups and certainly as organisations. Defining them helps us to:

• Recognise and reward the sort of behaviour that leads to success.
• Deal with problems in the way people do things, as opposed to what they are doing.
• Refine our recruitment and development processes to make sure we acknowledge ‘what it takes to work here.’

Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great, talks about getting the right people on the bus before you decide where to drive it. That is about values. What he’s saying is that if you get people on board who share the common passion for the way to do things – whether that’s being disciplined, creative, directive or facilitative – what that is applied to is more likely to be successful. Collins talks about a culture of discipline in the organisations he surveyed. To paraphrase his findings, when he asked the leaders of the great organisations how they kept their people focused and disciplined, they looked puzzled. “They came that way” seemed to be the answer.

In one organisation I worked for , I lead an initiative to crystallise the company’s values to help prepare for significant growth. The leaders of the company had been there for a long time and were fairly clear about what they thought the values were. However, we persuaded them to let everyone have a say. There were 150 staff at the time, albeit spread across 3 locations in the UK and US, and working through a project group, we gave everyone a chance to articulate what they thought the values were, and just as importantly, what they should be at a time of exciting growth.

We ended up with six values, which were subsequently built into a revised performance management process. I think the consultation and the integration were vital to the whole exercise. Unless values are articulated and measured, they can become just another HR initiative.

This new performance management process allowed managers to tackle poor behaviour, even if objectives were achieved. The message was that if you trampled all over other people, or put your own goals above that of the team or organisation, there would be consequences.

I once described the organisation as a ‘roll your sleeves up’ type of place. There was no place for people who wouldn’t type their own letters, make their own travel arrangements and so on. Big egos didn’t sit comfortably in our open-plan, rather crowded environment. But that’s what made it successful – a feeling of all being in it together .
Every organisation will rightly have its own set of values, whether implicit or explicit. Of course, any value statements will become meaningless and actually create cynicism if the leaders’ actions or general culture blatantly contradict them. For example, in an organisation where ‘everyone’s contribution matters’, a change to the reward structure heavily biased to the senior team hardly supports this message. If work-life balance is a value, yet people are called “real nine to fivers” if they leave to be with their family at 5pm, then the stated value is meaningless.

How to make values work for you

• Help the leaders of the organisation to articulate their beliefs about the values – the ‘how we do stuff around here’, and link these behaviours to the current and future objectives of the business.
• If possible, get as much input to what the values are and should be from the staff.
• Aim to have no more than 5/6 values – they must be critical, meaningful and powerful.
• Break down the behaviours which would demonstrate the values. It is sometimes useful to do positive and negative indicators.
• Find a way of measuring values behaviour so they are integrated into day-to-day life.
• Recognise that values may need to evolve as a business does, though not as much as the vision and objectives. When identified properly, the values can be the things that are core to the organisation, regardless of the market it operates in.
• Use the values to recruit, develop, reward and retain the right people.