Your Corporate Values — Placeholder, Placebo or Propellant?
There’s a certain irony writing this post on Boxing Day 2021. After all, in organizational culture circles, the topic of corporate values is a perpetual punching bag for many.
Honestly, any exercise that consumes as much Executive attention and energy and is so gleefully emblazoned on so many walls and websites should have an enormous ROI. Yet, if you ask most employees which aspect of their corporate lives is met with the most cynicism (or derision) corporate values typically takes pole position.
Rather than debating whether your corporate values have any value1, two recent conversations with culture leaders — Janeen Speer of Benevity and Stephen de Groot of Brivia Consulting — focused instead on the accountable authors of these values rather than the poor recipients.
Why would seasoned and savvy leaders deliberately create something that would be routinely met with apathy rather than author something that evokes eager anticipation?
Why, at a time of workplace and workforce introspection, would they pen something generic and forgettable, rather than something distinctive and magnetic? If you think I’m overstating “generic” do a quick mental count of how many organizations that flout “integrity” or “trust” in their company values.
And why constrain the task of authorship to a closed group and select few when organizations are rapidly becoming hives of egalitarian co-creation…and, not to put too fine a point on it, values are universal and deeply seated in all of us, they’re not just the domain of the corner offices.
Three reasons bubbled to the surface as we spoke.
Values as Placeholder
Values as Placebo
Values as Propellant
Values as Placeholder
You know the ones. Values that are as vanilla as the walls they adorn. The one’s that you can’t debate or question because they’re right and appropriate. This is an airline touting safety, a bank touting trust and an ad agency espousing creativity. There’s nothing wrong with them on their face. But its perhaps their sheer banality and non-offensive vernacular that makes them so innocuous and forgettable. Sure, you’re unlikely to offend shareholders, investors and the business press but you’re equally unlikely to inspire your current talent, attract new thinkers or cause your competition any sleepless nights.
If you see your values just as a placeholder, then be satisfied with the place you’re currently in. It’s unlikely they’ll stimulate you get to another, better, higher place.
Values as Placebo
I credit Janeen for this thought. Values that feel good and feel right but they have little or no therapeutic value for your people or business today. These are the values that draw on the history or the legacy of the organization. Values that are more origin story than manifesto for the future. Yes, there is power in your past glories but, as the book says, what got you here won’t get you there.
If you see your values as a placebo, then you’re anchoring them in the past and in the rear-view window. Values should, like your strategy, have the elasticity to evolve and be reshaped as your business or your situation evolves. Administering a set of placebo values isn’t the way to build a strong and virulent organization.
Values as Propellant
Shockingly this is the orientation to values I wish more organizations took. Vibrant, differentiated, opinionated and, ultimately, a catalyst for fresh thinking and bold execution. Values that are unambiguous about what your organization feels is necessary to succeed right now. Values that rally your internal forces but also act as a clarion call to others not currently in your fold but who desperately want to join you.
If you see your values as a propellant, then you’ll be permanently dis-satisfied with ordinary and expected. You’ll dig deep into your strategy — and into your current organization — and ask how we drive behaviours that will add fuel to our efforts and ambitions. Certainly, respect your past but don’t be encumbered by it. Be aware of what your competition says but don’t let them speak for you.
Some final thoughts…
Over the holidays I was drawn back to Michael Leckie’s fantastic book “The Heart of Transformation”. There are numerous reasons why every leader should grab a copy but as I re-read Chapter 7 “Pathfinding before Path Following” I was struck by how pertinent that section was to the idea of corporate values. And conveniently, how it also enabled the P alliteration motif to continue.
Directly from the book2.
“We want to live and work in a world where we give respect and ask permission. A world where we make it safe to give and receive power and control. A world where we feel safe with that power and control. A world where we are guided by values and principles and these are what matters most.”
Michael sets out 5 questions (and one bonus one) that anyone embarking on a values exercise should consider deeply:
1. Where are we really going — what is your destination
2. What is most important — what do you value
3. Is this who we are — how will we be held accountable
4. Who would know best — how (and who) do we validate this with
5. Can we discuss our differences — how do we enable rigorous debate
6. (Bonus) What am I hiding from you — how self-aware are we being
Simple questions but, if you’re willing to do the work, deeply provocative.
If you’ve been nodding your head vigorously to this point and want your values to be a propellant, not a punching bag, then there’s the final exercise I encourage your team to do. This pulled from my well-thumbed and often-referenced copy of “The Culture Engine” by S. Chris Edmonds.
Three simple filters to review your values against. Particularly if you’re in the Propellant game.
Are these universal? You can’t have one set of values for your Executives and one set for your employees.
Are they observable? Can you see, hear, read, experience your values in all the actions going on around you? If you’ve written a set of values so esoteric or amorphous that you can’t easily point to them being executed around you, you’ve opted for placeholders and placebos.
Are they measurable? Can you see a measurable rise — or decline — in these values being actioned by your colleagues and leaders? Would you be able to reliably score — and rank — your colleagues on these values? If you’re adamant that your values are going to be a propellant, then you’ve gotta be able to determine who is the fuel among your people.
Ultimately your organization will come to your own determination about the values you craft, and you communicate.
Only you can determine if they’ll be a placeholder, a placebo, or a propellant.
With so many businesses — and, more importantly, so many people — in need of inspiration and invigoration in 2022, I hope you’ll choose wisely.
1. Do Your Corporate Values Have Any Value — Hilton Barbour blog January 2021
2. “The Heart of Transformation” First Edition. page 136
3. “The Heart of Transformation” on Amazon here
4. “The Culture Engine” on Amazon here