Every organisation today from charities to investment brokers to arms manufacturers now seems to talk about the importance of their shared values. They have to: in a world where consumers, particularly among the incredibly influential ‘millennial‘ generation, are becoming more demanding, having a powerful, value-led approach to business is seen as essential. But how far can we, as business leaders, really define the values (and by extension the culture) of our organisation? And how much, in reality, should we? Here are my thoughts.
It all comes down to behavior
I think a helpful way into this is to begin with behavior. As leaders, our behavior is influential – at least in terms of the people who make up our organisation. The way that we act as leaders, for good or ill, directly affects the actions of those who look to us as an example. As leaders, we set the tone of our organisation, defining what is good or bad, productive and unproductive behavior for everyone else. Of course, any organisation is made up of individuals who can and do make their own decisions, but in my experience the benefits and consequences of ‘leading by example’ are very real.
How then does this link with this idea of values? Well, for me it all comes down to the culture we help to create within our organisation. If we really are powerful drivers of behavior within the company we’re leading, then it is up to us to be very clear about what underpins our own behaviors.
This is where the importance of having a clearly defined set of values for your company comes into play. You see it in particular in start up companies, where the distance between the founder of the company and a small, motivated group of people is very short. There are no multi-layered levels of hierarchy here to obscure what is important to the business and what isn’t – the leaders of the business are able to very clearly communicate what values the company stands for, and what it is looking to achieve.
This word ‘motivation’ here is very important, because having a clear set of values for your business at this stage is crucial in moving people to act. The shared values of your business set a clear, aspirational way of doing things that everyone can buy into together – and it will forge powerful connections between the people who share those values. These connections, and this shared sense of purpose based on commonly-held values, are critical in helping the company to grow.
Keeping values fresh
But what happens when these companies do grow? What is the role of leaders and teams in defining values as the organisation gets bigger? I think that the important point here to remember is that values can evolve over time – particularly as new people join the organisation and bring their own perspectives and viewpoints.
The trick here, for me, is to make sure that the original company values aren’t simply diluted, or forgotten – rather, they need to be as front and center in everyone’s minds as they were in the early days of the business. That doesn’t mean that they are set in stone, however.
So, encourage everyone in your organisation to be questioning and unafraid to challenge the status quo: ask them to think about questions like ‘why are we doing this?’, ‘what are we trying to change here?’, or even ‘Can I be proud to tell my children about what we do here?’.
They’re all important questions – and not just because they go to the heart of why we all get out of bed in the morning and go to work. They’re also important because they are the kind of questions that provoke an emotional response, and they inspire action.
And it is when we act, together, in a way that really matters deeply to us, that we really start to achieve things that have value.