The Value Proposition: What Does Your Organization Value?
We’re likely (hopefully) all familiar with our organization’s mission. The statement that explains our purpose, why the organization exists, how we can all work in the same direction. You hopefully know your vision, too – what the organization is aspiring to do, to become, to create long-term. What about values? Are they identified separately as standalone points of emphasis? Does everyone at the organization know what they are? I’ve personally seen this done well where it is emphasized, celebrated and incorporated into everyday work and performance evaluation, but I’ve also seen it done very poorly. At one new job I had started I asked what the values were… and nobody knew them; they knew they’d seen them in a slide deck once, but that’s about it… This was a learning moment that taught me how important knowing and living an organization’s values can be; and that I should have inquired during the interview how they lived their values and not after the fact during new hire orientation!
What’s the Purpose of Values? (I mean, do we really have to tell people to act with integrity? Really?)
Values build an identity. If mission creates the “what,” values shape the “how;” the guiding light. This is not “how” in the step-by-step sense, but “how” you will act or behave in all that you do – your character.
In today’s market, consumers are more informed than ever before. They have a world of information, of options, of reviews, right at their fingertips. Therefore, they have the power to ask the questions that matter to them and decide if they like your organization… or not. Why do I want to work with you or buy from you instead of them? What makes you unique? Do you share values I have? Do you prioritize the same considerations as me? Are you socially conscious? What do you stand for?
For example, here’s 20 potential value terms (of hundreds that could be considered) that are all arguably good and positive characteristics. So how do you choose?
Ultimately, it depends on what is the best fit for your organization? You must choose the concepts or terms that resonate and are (or should be) reflected in how you do business. A lot will depend on what you do, who you serve, how you can best accomplish your mission, what ideals absolutely cannot fall away without losing who you are as an organization. Further, people can interpret singular words differently so you must define what it means at your organization. Well shucks, this is getting hard…
So, there are a lot of “good” options, but what do you prioritize? What are the true drivers of how things are done in your organization to be true to itself and do its best work? It takes time, likely multiple voices, and it’s a process to delineate your core values. However, once you’ve committed the effort and intentionality to it, these guiding principles can be culture-shifting in the best way possible for your organization to align to a common purpose.
How are Values Reflected in the Culture?
Your core values paint a picture of your organization’s value. What are you bringing to this world? What value-add does your organization represent as a whole? Your core values can shape the culture (and ideally, should because they are important to the character of your organization); but that’s only if they are communicated, implemented, demonstrated, and all are held accountable to them. Selecting your values is not simply listing them. To optimize the value of values, leaders and employees must take time to actually create them, to make them happen, to live them.
For example, an organization cites “innovation” as a core value. If leaders say they want this to be interwoven into the culture and way of approaching work, are they truly creating an environment where this can happen and supporting it? “Innovation” sounds good but you must also be willing to back it up; put your money where your mouth is as it were. For instance, does the organization give employees time to be creative or are they bogged down with day-to-day tasks? Do they have access and ability to learn new things or is that only allowed “on their own time?” Is cross-function collaboration facilitated or are departments very siloed and non-communicative about what they’re doing? Is there encouragement to try new things even if it means knowing there’s a decent chance of failure?
The leadership demonstrated around each value is a crucial input into the culture that is created. Employees know when pie in the sky words don’t match the on the ground action. Core values should form the “decision-making lens” through which all decisions are evaluated; decisions in good times and in challenging times. Using these values can keep the organization on track as they assess whether an action supports their values. The synergy created when there is consistent alignment with core values will lead to a culture that outwardly reflects these same values because they are truly entwined in every decision and action made, regardless of role in the organization.
Clearly, culture is more then just ping pong tables and free yogurt bars, it’s a spirit, based on trust, mutual understanding and walking the talk. But remember, this only applies if the employees know what the values are in the first place.
How do you choose? Or evaluate if the values you have are still the best fit?
There are various paths organizations can take to discern their core values and it can depend on a variety of factors including the size of an organization and what life stage (early days of a startup vs. well-established organization) they are in. When selecting values, there are typically 3-5 at the core (but that’s not to say one might not say it all) of an organization. These are what will drive decision making when conflicting options arise such as whether I meet the deadline or I remain focused on delivering the best quality while potentially missing the deadline by a day or two. The values decided upon will provide a common purpose, a framework through which your organization’s culture will show itself; so, choose wisely.
One possibility is to hold an off-site retreat among top leaders in the organization to discuss and determine the core values driving their purpose into the future. Or you could take a bottom-up approach that involves discussing values in team meetings. These brainstorming sessions can be compiled to look for patterns and overlap to help narrow down the themes that have the most resonance across the organization. Either way, if it’s not a solo decision, it is important that participants don’t simply give answers they “think” they should say, but rather what they truly believe are, or could be, positive driving values for the organization. This process should not be rushed, and may need to develop over time to ensure it’s authentic and not simply picking positive words from a hat to get it done.
Ultimately, there must be consensus after careful, thoughtful deliberation and collaboration to optimize buy-in. As mentioned before, words or phrases can have different interpretations; therefore, take the time to also create a succinct definition of what is meant by the organization in using that value. How do you explain it to a 4-year-old? What does it look like when it’s been embodied? This is critical to a cohesive outcome that will be communicated and incorporated throughout all you do.
And remember, values are living concepts. If after some time, two start to feel redundant, combine them; if it’s realized an important and pervasive value was missed, add it in. Values should be revisited regularly and may need to evolve as the organization grows.
Now Sell It!
If you have an amazing set of values but fail to communicate them, what’s the point? Everyone is going to be making decisions willy nilly without a common lens which will dilute your results. Communicate, communicate, communicate! Communicate your values both internally and externally. Internally, ensure they are visible and regularly reinforced with employees. When employees feel the purpose in their work, feel inspired by what they are doing, feel integral to something larger than themselves, it creates a greater will to work hard and a deeper commitment to go above and beyond.
Externally, communicate your values to attract new talent (and talent with aligned values), clients, customers and investors. Having strong core values that others can relate to makes them also want to support and/or work with you. As core values integrate to create a cohesive culture, it’s more than soft, touchy feely goodness. Core values that form the basis for a strong culture has a direct impact on profitability and success of an organization. Author of The Culture Cycle, Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus James L. Heskett, found that as much as half of the difference in operating profit between organizations can be attributed to effective cultures. He stated in his book that, “…engaged managers and employees are much more likely to remain in an organization, leading directly to fewer hires from outside the organization." He continues, "This, in turn, results in lower wage costs for talent; lower recruiting, hiring, and training costs; and higher productivity (fewer lost sales and higher sales per employee). Higher employee continuity leads to better customer relationships that contribute to greater customer loyalty, lower marketing costs, and enhanced sales."
Here are a few examples of organizations that capitalized on a competitive advantage based on their values to get you thinking about how you can do the same:
Patagonia is committed to building the best product and this is reflected in their no time limit return policy. Further, employees are enabled to set their own flexible work schedules so they can take advantage of the natural outdoor beauty that surrounds them.
TOMS® Shoes’ deep sense of corporate responsibility started with the simple idea that every pair of TOMS® shoes purchased would result in a pair donated to children in need and it has only grown from there.
Jersey Mike’s Day of Giving® is when 100% of profits are donated to local charity partners. They believe the purpose of giving is simply to give.
What are you waiting for?
So core values can lead to an engaging culture, motivated team members, a unique selling proposition and increased profits… what are you waiting for?! Contact Key Elements Consulting today for a consultation on how we can facilitate value setting sessions, as well as creating and implementing culture initiatives surrounding your values and more!