Quick. What are your company values?
Were you able to answer? Or did you hesitate and stutter and try to remember where you wrote them down?
For most business owners creating a company values statement is part of the business planning process, along with the related mission and vision statements.
Maybe you took a creative writing approach. Tossing out words like professionalism. Honesty. Customer-centric. Innovative.
Maybe you called a team meeting. Who are we? What makes us different? What makes us better? Who do we want to be?
If you are a solopreneur then you may have created your values statements from your own passion for what you are creating and your vision for how your company behaves.
So what happened to those values?
Is that plan languishing in a binder on a dusty shelf in the back of your office? Forgotten?
Perhaps you took the bold step of putting these values on a plaque in the lobby. But how do they influence the day to day business? Probably not so much.
Regardless of method of defining your values, how do those words drive your daily actions? Be honest. Do you really go work each day saying, “I am going to be professional today”?
Why Are Values Important?
Value statements are the articulation of your beliefs and principles. They are the stake in the ground that says,”this is who we are, what we stand for and what you can expect from us.”
Your values should be the guideposts for your business decisions. They are the bedrock of your company culture. They may also help you stand out from the competition.
Is this how you are using your values?
Let’s take a look at some real company value statements.
The bare-bone list
Values can be a list of words.
Wegmans grocery chain uses Caring, High Standards, Making a Difference, Respect, and Empowerment.
These are words that are hard to argue with. Sure, we should have high standards. But does everyone have the same metric for those standards? Have we even agreed on what we want standards for?
Single word values don’t really give us enough meat to use them as guideposts.
Enron, the poster child for ignored values
Enron’s mission statement touted its four key values: respect, integrity, communication and excellence.
If you were unfortunate to have invested in Enron you know they did not live up to these values.
Investors and employees were repeatedly lied to about the company financial situation. Enron executives and directors were selling $1.1 billion of their own stock while they were encouraging others to invest in the company. This went on until the company collapsed, thousands of jobs were lost and employee retirement funds vanished.
This is a perfect example of values with no reality check and I think the lack of definition for each made it even easier for them to ignore. Did anyone stop to point out that providing false information on investor calls didn’t meet their integrity goal? Obviously not.
IBM, adding context to the basic words
Values can be more fleshed out as with IBM’s stated values:
Dedication to every client’s success, Innovation that matters—for our company and for the world, Trust and personal responsibility in all relationships.
Getting a bit better but what exactly is “dedication to every client’s success”? Does this phrase create a mental picture? Can you use it as a benchmark for all your customer interactions? Probably not.
LL Bean, a more holistic set of values
LL Bean promotes itself as “as trusted source for quality apparel, reliable outdoor equipment and expert advice for over 100 years.)
Their values statement:
Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings, and they will always come back for more.
Using simple, buzzword-free language this sentence encapsulates the LL Bean philosophy that all employees and customers can understand and appreciate.
But we are still left with some ambiguous words like “reasonable profit.” Do your customers expect a bit more than just being treated like human beings?
It is clear that even with great companies like LL Bean, developing a strong, useful and authentic set of values may not be as easy as it looks.
Aspirational or Core Values?
Many companies fall into the trap of writing aspirational values. This is very easy to do.
Core values are ones you have now and want to nurture. Core values frequently reflect the values of the founders. They are baked into the culture of the business and are the foundations of decision making.
Aspirational values are ones you want to have. But you may not have yet. You want to be customer-centric but perhaps do not have that yet ingrained in all your business processes.
Aspirational values can therefore be tricky. If you want to achieve this goal you need to make the tough decisions to make it part of all your processes and decisions. You may find that these aspirational goals sound good but really don’t work for your business.
How to prove your values are authentic core values
Simple. You have at least one story for each value. A story that demonstrates that value in action.
If you have no stories demonstrating the value, they are aspirational.
You no doubt have stories about finding an error in your billing and correcting it (honesty), accepting a returned pair of shoes that had obviously been worn (customer service) or your company efforts at recycling (sustainability).
The best stories show your values being put to the test
If honesty is one of your values, do you have a story about turning down a game-changing offer because it was unethical? Or firing a critical member of your team because you found she lied during the hiring process?
When you have stories that demonstrate the value in action, and especially when adhering to the value when it was uncomfortable, inconvenient, and not profitable, you have authentic values.
Values + Stories = Brand
This is where it really gets interesting.
Your values plus your stories are the foundation of your brand.
This is where those values leap off that dusty shelf, rise from your old business plan, and, like the Velveteen Rabbit, become real.
How this magical equation works will be the subject of the next several blog posts. We will look at creating your value statement, review two companies who are living their values and see how they weave their stories throughout their web site and their marketing.
They may be big companies but what they do can scale down to the smallest small business. Like yours.
So dust off your values statement or, if you haven’t thought about this, now is a good time to start!