Values: From Corporate Fluff To Strategic Asset
Written with Marc Winter | Artwork Credit: Joy Yun
You’d be hard pressed to find a company without a set of documented values.
Whether they’re codified explicitly as capital-V “Values” (or sometimes Principles, or Truths) or internalized informally as often repeated company catchphrases, they are culturally significant because they serve as a moral compass for how to work and what the company holds sacred.
And yet, when we take a hard look at most company values, they feel like little more than a guide to the art of being a decent human being, with language largely interchangeable with the next company. You know the ones—they’re often captured with words like, “Respect” or “Integrity”. These can be categorized as the “do no harm” values set.
Don’t get us wrong—there are many companies, for various reasons, for whom “do no harm” values make sense. These are the multinational corporations whose values need to resonate with hundreds of thousands of people, thereby requiring simply articulated values to accommodate communication and applicability at an immense scale.
For most companies, however, values can be imbued with so much more specificity and unique voice. At their best, they bottle the magic of who you are and serve as a guide for today and the future. They have a richness to them, an actionability, a unique point of view about the world and how you choose to contribute to it. We call this the “bottled magic” values set.
Consider these three examples of effective corporate values—they are interesting, pointed, and real drivers of business value for the companies who hold them.
“Treasure wild ducks.” (IBM)
- Treasure wild ducks.
“In IBM we frequently refer to our need for ‘wild ducks.’ The moral is drawn from a story by the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard who told of a man who fed the wild ducks flying south in great flocks each fall. After a while some of the ducks no longer bothered to fly south; they wintered in Denmark on what he fed them. In time they flew less and less. After three or four years they grew so lazy and fat that they found difficulty in flying at all. Kierkegaard drew his point: you can make wild ducks tame, but you can never make tame ducks wild again… We are convinced that any business needs its wild ducks. And in IBM we try not to tame them.” – Former IBM Chairman Thomas J. Watson, Jr.
- In a world where technologies are constantly being disrupted, IBM’s celebration of outside-the-box thinking is what has kept them at the forefront of their industry for over a century.
- Wild Ducks Ritual: In 2014, IBM launched a Wild Ducks pilot program, inviting employees to pitch their non-traditional ideas for company and global improvements.
“Be passionately dispassionate.” (X, Alphabet’s Moonshot Factory)
- Be passionately dispassionate.
“We’re intellectually honest. We pursue our ideas with the conviction that we’re right and are going to change the world, but once we start learning where we’re wrong, we take a step back and calmly assess the risks we face, what’s not going well, and what we could do differently. That includes sometimes choosing to kill our project so we can move our time and resources to a more promising idea.” –The Gimbal, X’s employee handbook
- Success as a “moonshot factory” runs on the organization’s cultural ability to be passionate about the potential to create immense positive impact through radical ideas, while also holding an honest lens to any given project whose odds of succeeding—by definition of being a moonshot—are low.
- Project Foghorn: In January 2016, after two years of work creating clean fuel from seawater, the team decided to end their investigation. The cost models sent a loud-and-clear message: because of the current and projected cost of hydrogen, seawater fuel wasn’t worth pursuing—for now.
“Look left to find right.” (Harry’s)
- Look left to find right.
- “We critically question conventional wisdom in search of the best path. Harry’s was founded as a better alternative. We pursue the charted and uncharted and take smart risks. We’re always game for a challenge. Plus, making something better is exciting!” — Harry’s Career postings
- Harry’s is one of the great “challenger” brands—having an unconventional perspective grounded in the belief that there is a “better way” is what has made Harry’s so successful, reaching a $1.7B valuation this year.
- The Masculinity Report: Not many CPG companies partner with scholars to publish original research on social issues. Harry’s Masculinity Report champions positive masculinity in the 21st century, identifying the values and priorities of men across the US to understand their mental and physical wellbeing.
In our work helping organizations define their values, we know the process can be highly personal to the specific organization and its culture. However, there are some golden rules for each phase that are constant in every project:
Crafting and activating your values
- Do your research. The best way to figure out what your company values is to ask! Much of this will come from your company’s leaders—their beliefs, learnings, and intentions for what the company holds sacred. However, in any strong culture your values will also emerge from the rest of the organization. Asking questions like, “How were we able to achieve X?” and “At our most successful moments, what did we hold paramount?” can help unearth the unstated values that have been driving your business. While you’ll likely pick up some great words and phrases as you do your research, don’t worry too much about word-smithing just yet. Surfacing themes and “value territories” is a great way to begin.
- Pressure-test your hypothesis. Once you have a few contenders for potential values, facilitate sessions with stakeholders to query their feedback. This process not only makes your values sharper and more authentic, but it’s the important work of engaging your people in the creation process. No one likes to be told what their values are, but it can be magical to give voice to what makes an organization and its people special. It can also be illuminating to pressure-test with your customers. You may think they value your trustworthiness, when in fact it’s your inventiveness that shines through in the market.
- Narrow your values to your “bottled magic” set. In the original words of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, “Kill your darlings”. It will be tempting to include everything your company believes in, but there is an inverse relationship between the number of values you have and the likelihood your people will remember them. This is your opportunity to filter out the “do no harm” values like “integrity,” “teamwork,” and “don’t murder,” and instead focus on the values that are uniquely you—your “bottled magic” values. Keep in mind, your “bottled magic” set should be highly strategic. When narrowing, ask yourself, “Which values, if fully embraced and lived by each member of our team, would create outsized, positive impact for our business and customers?”
- Articulate your values with authentic, specific, and emotive language. The more memorable your values are, the more likely they will stay top of mind for your people. Metaphors, parables, turns of phrases are your friend here (think: “Treasure wild ducks.”) However, it’s more than being an exercise in worldplay—it’s an opportunity to elevate the language your people already use. Find the right words by going “truffle hunting” amongst your people and culture. What pithy words or phrases have organically caught on? What quotes or bits of wisdom do leaders frequently reference? What stories have become company legends? The best way to make your values authentic is to listen deeply to your people and the language that is meaningful to them.
- Bring your values to life. Your values are only as good as how fully they live within your people. While having a set of values is table stakes, vividly activating your values to inspire and guide employees is a much finer art. Methods for activation take many forms: Our firm, SYPartners, has partnered with CEO Mindy Grossman to craft a company-wide decision-making filter based on what’s most meaningful to WW; We’ve launched a campaign for the top 800 leaders of a Fortune-50 company to “spot values in the wild” and amplify them through notes of gratitude; And, we’ve designed many company-wide Values Jams since partnering with IBM to design their seminal gathering. There is no one way to bring values to life—what’s important is that employees at all levels find meaning and joy in the activation. Further, while activations can be an important launchpad, your company’s ultimate goal should be for your values to become part of your ongoing rituals and simply “how you do business”.
Values, at their worst, are a check-the-box exercise. At their best, they’re the means by which you bottle and spread your company’s magic—and ultimately, inspire more people to build a company and impact that matters.