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What do your organisation’s core values actually say?

Let me apologize in advance: I am about to upset a bunch of people this Sunday.

If you are part of a large corporation, I want to discuss your core values. You know, those lofty things on your walls, your computer screens, your office mugs. They are supposed to be your guiding lights; your noble aspirations; your collective virtues.

They are also supposed to make you stand out and be noticed. They signal your principles and qualities to the world, and help differentiate you from your mediocre rivals.

Why, then, do we all have pretty much the exact same set of values?

Are these not yours? Teamwork, customer centricity, excellence, professionalism, integrity, citizenship, governance? Or variations thereof? Perhaps you have also added something about innovation, to reflect modern times?

How do I know this? Because you and your closest competitors probably have virtually identical (purported) values! That turns out to be true across industries and territories as well: organizations all proud of their values, thinking these lend them distinction. How, when your competitor down the road also professes the same set of virtues?

And why, in 2022, is that set of values still relevant? When you tell us you believe in teamwork, what are you telling us? Any large group of people working together with a common purpose has to have good teamwork going on. It’s not an option. If you don’t have it, you fail. So what value does saying you have it add to our knowledge of you?

Customer focus, you say? All businesses by definition need to be centred on customers. Your entire business model hangs on that. If you don’t make customers the centre of your world, you are not getting the point of being in business. Like teamwork, customer centricity is a necessity, not a virtue.

Professionalism, you note with pride? As opposed to what—whimsical haphazardness? Given your size, folks, what else would we expect from you other than professionalism? The fact you have it is not news; but its lack definitely would be. The same applies to your proclamation that you are trustworthy or that you have integrity. So you’re a good, community focused, corporate citizen? Right, great, you’re not a polluter or price-gouger or part of an oligopolistic cartel, then? You’re sure about that? Thanks for confirming that you’re not borderline criminal. It’s comforting.

People, every organization ever has had these so-called values. That includes Enron, a company lacking any sense of ethics, and whose actual lack of values precipitated a global meltdown and far-reaching changes in corporate governance. It also includes various defunct entities in our part of the world, many of whom proclaimed their values in their lobbies. In fact, the more these statements of core values are emphasized and promoted, the more nervous I have learned to become.

I am making three points here. The first: let’s move on from these box-ticking, me-too antics. If your values are the same as everyone else’s, and if they tell us nothing new or special about you, ditch them. They serve no purpose.

Second: don’t have values; do values. People who are genuinely ethical or excellent or innovative have no need to tell us that they are; we can all see and feel those values, in our experiences and interactions with them. Being virtuous is far more difficult than talking about virtue. Do your much-touted values stand up to scrutiny when you announce brutal layoffs, or take on dodgy customers? Do more of the walk and less of the talk. Don’t use the talk as a substitute for the walk.

Lastly, if you are truly special, by all means tell us and show us. But not by using the same old, tired vision/mission/values statements. Most of those say absolutely nothing at all. No one is interested in them other than the person who wrote them—and that too is doubtful. We may have moved on from the fax machine and the typewriter, but not, it often seems, from the equally outmoded artefacts of strategy and communication.

Deep into 21C, you have to tell us your story in fresh and creative ways. Not via speeches and self-praising pages on your website, but by storytelling that has the ring of authenticity. Don’t bore us; don’t lie to us; don’t sell us fakery. Do communicate with us; do convince us; do pique our curiosity. There’s an art to that, and that’s why organizations need artists and artistry in their midst, not just plumbers and bean-counters.

And the best art, never forget, is rooted in truth and depicts reality in interesting ways. It is not an act of tedious fantasy.

Are we still friends? Now you can go to your organisation’s statement of core values and take a hard look at what’s it’s actually communicating. Is it true? Is it fresh and different and eye-catching? If not, now what?

(Sunday Nation, 18 December 2022)

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