Every company needs a value system. Your core company values shape everything from your organization’s culture to its business strategy, and they also communicate internally what your company’s beliefs are — which is essential for attracting, and unifying, the right talent.
Simply choosing a few buzzwords to be your values and calling it a day should hardly be the goal, though. Values that are inauthentically chosen or poorly implemented can be worse for company morale than not designating values in the first place. When attempting to create a company value system, leaders are prone to making three mistakes in particular, according to career coach and author Jill Ferguson.
3 Common Mistakes When Creating a Company Value System
1. There’s a disconnect between the value system and reality.
This is when the “values that are professed don’t align with the actual environment,” she said. Anecdotally, this is a mistake Ferguson has witnessed herself earlier in her career.
“I was an executive at a company where the values were literally painted on the wall of the lobby behind the receptionist’s desk,” she recalled. “We finally got the board and senior management to paint it over when we pointed out that the policies and actual environment didn’t reflect or adhere to the proclaimed values.”
2. The values rotate.
When a company overhauls its values too regularly, it can “seem like a ‘thing of the month or year,’ as opposed to something in the company’s structure,” she said.
3. The values are overemphasized.
Values should be clearly communicated, but employees “shouldn’t feel hit on the head with the values at every meeting, as opposed to the values being infused into what the company does and who the company is,” she said.
When a company’s so-called values feel like talking points that are created “top-down and foisted on people from executives and from HR,” Ferguson added, it’s unlikely they’ll be received as legitimate.
“You need to understand the perceived values already in place by employees and customers,” she said. “Then, you need to understand what your employees value and what they think the company needs to value, as in many ways, your employees are your company.”
For help with pinpointing values that are meaningful and a true reflection of your organization, we heard from other career coaches, executives and experts about how to craft a value system that sticks.
7 Ways to Create a Meaningful Company Value System
1. Hold a company-wide brainstorming session.
A great way to find out what your employees value? Ask them, Dave Nilsson, founder and director of The Converted Click, said.
“Your company culture will be stronger if everyone has the chance to contribute,” he said. “Hold a group brainstorming session and ask people to nominate your most important values. When you have a list of everyone’s contributions, hold further discussions to whittle them down to three to five core values.”
2. Keep things simple — and realistic.
Strive for realism and avoid cliches, advised Alex Magnin, founder of a consumer tech and digital media company.
“Nobody wants a company whose vision is to ‘think big’ — we’ve heard it all before, and such a statement is evidence of small thinking,” he said. “If you’re a smaller company with a niche, incorporate it into your statement and ensure employees know they’re working towards something rather than just for someone.”
In keeping with the spirit of simplicity, there’s no need to write a multi-page diatribe either, said Alex Mastin, CEO of Home Grounds.
“You could craft the most elegant and meaningful paragraph on a single value, but if you can’t recall it from memory, it defeats the point,” he said. “Keep your values short and snappy to avoid misinterpretation… A great set of core values will be concise, specific, unique to your business, and inclusive of all team members and divisions.”
3. Perform an honest assessment of your company’s culture.
Identify and interrogate the values your company is already living out, Kevin Mercier, founder of a travel blog, said.
“Analyze your current organizational culture,” he said. “For this step, you’ll need to honestly judge where your company stands and ask for opinions about the company’s internal values within and outside the organization. You can do so by asking any group of internal or external stakeholders their opinion about the organization’s current values or lack thereof.”
4. Pinpoint specific examples of what each value looks like in action.
For the sake of clarity, talk about these values not just as theories but with concrete examples to illustrate them, said executive coach Irial O’Farrell.
“There needs to be serious discussion about what each value does and doesn’t mean,” she said. “Come up with a decent set of definitions and bullet points for each value. For example, respect can mean different things to different people. Leaving it to everyone’s own interpretation will create judgement and friction.”
5. Ensure your values are embodied at the top.
Professing to hold certain values as a company and employing leaders who don’t embody those values themselves is one of the worst mistakes you can make, Trevor Larson, CEO of Nectar, said.
“As a leader, it falls on you to exemplify the values you want to instill in people,” he said. “People are rarely, if ever, willing to internalize the values of someone they believe is a hypocrite. For each value you want to ingrain, make it a part of internal literature and communication and encode it in organizational DNA by living it.”
A company whose leaders don’t embody its values should be prepared for a PR nightmare, Jessica Zhao, CMO of Spacewhite, added.
“The most important thing to understand about a company value system in 2021 is that you have to mean it,” she said. “A value system that is toothless will be found out and ridiculed. A company has to walk the walk and not just talk the talk – and that requires real grit.”
6. Schedule the values into your work week.
One great way to ensure as an executive-level leader that you’re living out your company’s values? Schedule them into your week, advised Daniel Cabrera, owner of a real estate company.
“Try assigning one of your new brand’s core values to each day of the work week, then make it your goal to do something each day that turns the words of one core value into action,” he said.
7. If your company fails to live up to its values — own up to it.
Unless you want employees to lose faith in your organization’s integrity entirely, it’s key to proactively and transparently communicate anytime there’s a lapse between what your company professes to stand for and what it actually does, said Todd Horton, CEO at KangoGift.
“Call out examples when the company doesn’t live the values,” Horton said. “It’s not easy, and examples help illustrate this.”
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