Employee values that mean business

Last week I met with a prospective client and the conversation turned to the importance of values and culture within business.

In the room were the CEO and HR director; both of whom stated that having clearly defined values were vital to the success of their business. They assured me that all of their people knew what the business stood for. I recommended putting this theory to the test. We asked an employee if they could state the five company values. Struggling after the second, it was clear that perhaps their people weren't as aware as first thought. So I then flipped this back to the CEO and HRD; could they name all of the values? They managed three (between them) before pulling out the values chart...

Is it any surprise then that their people struggled to understand what the business stood for, the core values each business unit was supposed to live by, when their senior management team could not articulate their five simple straight away?

Sadly, in my experience, this is not an unusual situation. More often than not, after being told values are at the heart of the business, this statement is let down with the pin-dropping silence when senior management are racking their brains for the words. Why is this?

One answer is, as much as some organisations like to think they are values-centric, they really aren't. Putting the mission statement and values on a plaque on the wall is not being values-centric. You can't hope people 'get it'; these things have to be lived and breathed in everything that the business does.

And when I say everything, I mean it. From marketing, recruitment, interviews; through induction, learning and development, performance appraisals and team building; in meetings and everyday conversations - values must be considered and referred to all times. And it is essential that every single team member, from the very top, to the floor, throughout your franchises and sister organisations, can easily understand what you're all about; what you stand for; and where you're going. They need to know what this 'looks like' and how they'll know when they're achieving it. This has to be consistent throughout the business.

Another answer is, in many organisations, things like missions, visions and values are still thought of as a 'fluffy HR notion' - no matter how hard HR professionals fight to change the perception. The reality, however, is values are critical. They bring everyone together on the same level, giving them a shared language, a common set of principles, beliefs and ideals all of which define the organisation's culture and can help make business decisions. And when times are turbulent, having a strong culture and values ensures something is remaining constant - generating a greater sense of trust within the organisation.

You don't even have to call them values. Culture, principles, simply 'how we do things' are some alternatives. This important thing is to commit to something tangible and real - people need to know what they are part of and what it means to be there.

Many of the world's most successful businesses have been built by being value-centric; emanating these and their strong cultures across their organisation and the products and services they deliver. The most obvious example, of course, is multi-billion dollar Apple Inc. Steve Jobs once stated "Apple's core value is that we believe that people with passion can change the world for the better." The business revolves around this core belief, they communicate it, only recruit those who exhume and can commit to it and as a result create some of the most innovative and ground-breaking technologies currently witnessed. He also remarked " the only thing that works is management by values. Find people who are competent and really bright, but more importantly, people who care exactly about the same thing you care about."

If you're values are not defined as yet, it's important to do so now; properly and inclusively. Avoid the top-down approach, involve your people; what do they think the business purpose is? Your beliefs? From this establish five or six core values which can underpin everything the business does and can be talked about in your language on a daily basis. The vital thing is making these memorable, referring to them and ensuring leaders and value champions live the message always; it's the only way your people will actually remember them, relate to them, like them, feel proud and truly live them every day.

Jane Sunley (pictured) CEO, Learnpurple