Six Ways to Be Certain Your Values Matter

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Values are only useful if they make a difference in the actions you take and the decisions you make. 

So when leaders and organizations talk about core values, the true test of each one is whether it drives decisions.

Now consider this: when was the last time you witnessed a core value significantly influencing a decision? At some companies, it’s easy to cite examples, but at others it’s extremely difficult.

At the pinnacle of Procter & Gamble’s success, one of their core values was discipline, and it was embodied by the organization’s use of the classic one-page memo to make proposals. When the company drifted away from that decision-making tool, it also drifted away from discipline as a core value. As the HBR article Listening Begins at Home puts it:

The classic one-page memo was a hallmark of P&G marketing culture, and new hires received specific training in how to produce one. No more. A number of employees in our research—particularly in the older generation—lamented the loss of these tools and the discipline they engendered. “With all the time pressures [and with brand managers] having broader responsibilities [than] just marketing, the thing that fell by the wayside was the paper,” said one 20-year veteran. “What we didn’t realize was that the thinking that went into the paper [disappeared along with the paper].…It’s hard to bring it back.”

Now imagine that your company has a core value of focusing on its long-term growth, profitability and competitiveness. That should mean that when given a choice between short term results and a long-term investment, you opt for the long term. That’s a core value in action. 

I started my consulting career at McKinsey & Company, and at least while I was there, they did an excellent job of living their core values. They have three:

●    Adhere to the highest professional standards

●    Improve our clients’ performance significantly

●    Create an unrivaled environment for exceptional people

As an example of sticking to your core values, one of the ways that McKinsey follows the third value is by maintaining a “caring meritocracy.” Everyone knows that the firm is an “up or out” organization—if you are not promoted, you leave. Yet the people who leave are treated with great respect. As valued alumni, they maintain connections with the firm, and often end up being clients. 

While at McKinsey, I (naively) said something about a client at a party to a person who actually worked at that client. The next day, I was called in to talk with the office manager about how that (fairly minor) breach of confidence diverged from firm values. It stuck in my mind, and ever since I have lived true to the value of protecting client confidentiality. 

Core values don’t just have benefits; they also come with inherent costs. To live true to a value, you must be willing to incur those costs.

Here are six things you can do to make sure your company lives its values: 

1.   Point out instances when your company’s values are—or should be—factoring into a decision that’s being made. For example, if your values call for “relentless innovation,” and your peer is considering deferring a product trial into the next year due to budget constraints, cite the value, then suggest ways that the cost of the trial could be reduced, so that it doesn’t have to be deferred.  

2.   Include a robust discussion about your company values in the onboarding process for new employees. Present a business dilemma, and ask the group to reflect on how the values might impact the decision they would make. For example, if one of your values is inclusion, you might discuss a hypothetical decision about whom to invite to a meeting.  

3.   Encourage each function to discuss how the values impact their work. For example, if your company has “humility” as a value, what does that mean in the context of the developing brand messaging? 

4.   Encourage employees to question decisions or actions that are inconsistent with company values. 

5.   Hire, promote and fire base on values. Don’t overlook values violations just because an employee is a top performer.  

6.   Share stories that illustrate your values. Whether this is time-honored legend about how the company founder always asked for employee input before opening a new location, or just a sentence or two about something extra that an employee did for a customer this week, stories remind people about how they can make the values real.   

What examples have you seen of core values factoring into important decisions? (or not..) 

Amanda Setili is president of strategy consulting firm Setili & Associates. She is author of Fearless Growth: The New Rules to Stay Competitive, Foster Innovation, and Dominate Your Markets, and The Agility Advantage, How to Identify and Act On Opportunities in a Fast-Changing World. 

For more strategies, videos and free materials, please visit www.setili.com. Or, contact Amanda to discuss how she works with companies to improve profits, performance and growth.

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