Building a Culture: You Need to Harness the Value of Core Values

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Core values are traits or qualities that represent deeply held beliefs. They reflect what is important to us, and what motivates us.

In an organization, values define what it stands for and how it is seen and experienced by all stakeholders (customers, employees, service partners, suppliers and communities).

In this organizational context, values are moving from a PR exercise to become the guiding compass, not only for progressive, enlightened organizations but for more well established corporates too.

“Culture will always eat strategy for breakfast”

In reality, values often exist implicitly, outside formal organization processes and, mostly, under the radar of awareness. The commonly adopted behavior in an organization is a representation of the values and creates the culture, the “felt experience” that stakeholders have.

Values impact how the very best thought-out rational processes actually operate in practice. This organization culture is powerful, as Ivan Misner, quoting Peter Drucker, reminds us: “Culture will always eat strategy for breakfast.”

Awareness of values at an organizational level helps employees and organizations to more easily navigate today’s complex, ambiguous business environment.

Articulating core beliefs, traditions and “the way we do things around here” through an explicit set of core values opens things up, empowers employees to make decisions without reference to their line manager for tiny details, ideas flow freely and creativity and innovation take place.

Harnessing the value of core values

How do you ensure that your stakeholders’ experience of your organizational values is explicit and aligned from the boardroom to the front line?

The tone is set by every employee. The leaders model what is important, and are particularly visible in everything they do — people take notice of how they behave.

Yet, each person has influence on others. An organization is a system of loosely connected individuals, and, the organization is only as good as each of the component parts.

We need to turn the lens inwardly if the organization is going to “live” the core values. What are you doing? If you don’t behave as if the core values matter, then others won’t either.

For values to be really cemented in the organization’s culture, everyone must be held accountable for demonstrating the values in their everyday actions. Embedding values is a challenge.

For organizations, identifying values is not enough. Well-written values without good execution can lead to Enron-sized disasters.

Enron would be in good company today; many leadership surveys see corporate values as rhetoric rather than reality, with most employees unaware of their organizations values. And yet, most employees see the potential benefits of having a set of values in the first place, especially if consequences of living and failing to live the core values are explicitly aligned.

So what?

In 2001, UCLA business Prof. Eric Flamholtz discovered a strong positive correlation between cultural agreement (a proxy for values or cultural alignment) and the company’s EBIT (Earnings Before Interest and Taxes). He concludes: “Organizational culture does have an impact on financial performance. It provides additional evidence of the significant role of corporate culture not only in overall organizational effectiveness, but also in the so-called bottom line.”

The changing landscape for business and organizations will arguably bring the importance of values into even sharper focus.

The Internet and social media have brought greater transparency than ever before. As a direct result, authenticity is, and will continue to be, increasingly important.

Some years ago, it was possible for organizations to invest in marketing and PR to tell the story they wanted others to hear, but now it is becoming increasingly difficult to “tell a story.” Organizations are no longer what they say they are but what others say they are and stakeholder perception is formed by the behavior of the people representing the organization.

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As the song says, “It Ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It), that’s what gets results”.

Exploring tour organizational values

Try this simple exercise to give you some insight into your organizational values.

If your organization were a group of musicians, what group would you be? What would your music be like, your lyrics? What kind of experience would your fans have? How would the band members interact?

And now, what group would you like to be?

This was originally published on CultureUniversity.com and was adapted from the Williams and Whybrow book (2013) THE 31 PRACTICES – Releasing the Power of Your Organization’s Values Every Day, LID Publishing, which is being released in the U.S. in June 2014.

About the Author

Alan Williams, Managing Director of SERVICEBRAND GLOBAL, coaches service sector organizations, internationally and in the UK, to deliver inspiring service for competitive advantage. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Hospitality, a Board member of the British Quality Foundation and a Steering Group member of the recently formed UK Values Alliance.

  • John Bushfield

    Alan – Great post on Culture driven by Core Values. I view it as a system; establishing the Core Values; modeling those values; using those values; and reinforcing the importance the company places on its Value System. The last 2 pieces are where good intentions go awry. Describing company actions and policies in the context of its value system is a critical component of the system. Including them as a key part of the performance encouragement system is yet another. Effective and authentic Core Value systems require commitment; either you’re all in or forget about it.

    • http://www.servicebrandglobal.com Alan Williams

      John, I totally agree that all too often, the subject of values is regarded as a comms exercise rather than embedded in the day to day organisation system. 31Practices is an end to end approach for sustained values based behaviour and action. We are currently seeking licensed Practitioners in various geographies to promote the concept and deliver 31Practices projects. Our book is at http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-31-Practices-Release-organization/dp/1907794352 and released in US in June.

      • John Bushfield

        Alan – Thanks for the reply. I’m not sure what a ‘licensed Practitioner’ means; can you elaborate?

      • Lavakumar Kota

        Good morning dear Alan
        Interested to know about licensed practitioners concept on 31 practices projects.
        Best regards and BEST WISHES FOR HAPPY NEW YEAR.
        Lava Kumar

        • http://www.servicebrandglobal.com Alan Williams

          Lavakumar, thank you for interest in the licensed 31Practices Practitioner concept. In order to enable more organisations to benefit from the 31Practices approach, I am now developing a network of Practitioners to promote the concept and deliver 31Practices projects. The requirements are a belief in a values based approach,
          business development/sales skills (to create a pipeline of potential clients
          and be able to explain the value of the approach), workshop
          delivery/facilitation capability and an approach to business based on collaboration
          (sharing information, risk and reward). These organisations/individuals will be fully familiarised with the 31Practices tools and techniques as well as provided with support materials, collateral and references to be best equipped for success in their markets. Is this clearer? Please let me know if you have further questions. Regards Alan

  • Roger Alves

    Mr. Williams – your article points to the crux of the problem — so often people, corporations, societies, etc. pay lip service to “core values” – they post them on walls, expound upon them in articles and speeches – yet act according to different set of guidlines. So the problem isn’t with the values so much as with people’s actions. In a recent interview, author Mendo Henriques captured what I’ve felt for a long while – “…we are not facing a “lack of values” but rather facing an overabundance of values in the absence of ethics.” Good read – thank you.

  • David Brown

    Although I’m not familiar with the “31 Practices,” as an Approved Tribal Leader through CultureSync (which also subscribes to “culture eats strategy for breakfast) I find their developmental approach to building values-based organizational cultures to be sound. It also jives with our own experience at MasterCoaches working with leadership teams. Human beings go through developmental stages, and so do groups of people (hence the term tribes). We’ve found that the majority of organizational cultures need to acquire a certain level of development before the notion of core values has real meaning and stickiness. This is why so much lip service, and even derision around core values prevails despite sincere efforts. But if we take the time to meet the culture where it is, and with skillful means gradually help them develop up the ladder, we can build a more sustainable values-driven culture. And as you imply, sustainability has a lot to do with integrating the exterior processes, systems, behaviors and tools with the interior values, beliefs and sense of purpose. Building that integral infrastructure is the other side of leveraging a values-driven culture and thriving business. Thanks for drawing attention to this critical opportunity.

    • http://www.servicebrandglobal.com Alan Williams

      Thanks David, I love the term tribes because it really captures the spirit of togetherness and belonging, common purpose and shared way of “being”. If of interest, you can see more about 31Practices at http://www.servicebrandglobal.com/31-practices/

  • Shirley Herts

    Much more organizations/stakeholders
    like to refer themselves as cowboys: is The Wild Wild West mentality? I think
    this is very interesting and maybe really a product of this time and age?

    In my soon to be going live platform Woman, Work Behavior (@VrouwWerkGedrag) I facilitate talks about all matters
    replicating on how behavior is reflected at the workplace. As they are so many
    issues & interactions going on, on the workplace which found there essence
    in the company’s culture. The way you describe it in your article is so strong
    and clear to connect and relate to. And for me it shows, how you connect it all
    so well together: culture, values, perception and the organization but as well
    the important role from the individual and their formed perception. Thanks for
    that.

  • http://www.neumabeauty.com Tommy Dionisio

    Love your article Alan, short – to the point and right on. I will look for your book, undoubtedly a good read.