By, Josh Angus
As a business advisor, I am always fascinated by the choices both small and large businesses make when it comes to creating company values.
The challenge is to cut through to what is real. What matters. And not let them be hijacked by marketing. Too often organisational values are fluff pieces used more for marketing than what they should be – organisational direction and strategy.
For me, values can be should be aspirational. They should be concise and, set the direction for the organisation whilst setting the tone for both behaviour and expectations. They are internal, not external – where they become when hijacked by marketing.
When used well, values can be incredibly effective in shaping organisational culture and steering the direction of strategy. When hijacked, they don’t really tell you anything about the organisation, its aspirations or the culture.
However, it is a slippery slope. Leadership teams and entrepreneurs can make values actionable and representative of the culture, but the words can at times justify negative behaviour. You want to find the middle ground – the sweet spot. Actionable, authentic and honest words that do not create rationalisation for poor, aggressive or even unethical behaviour.
Need an example? Uber.
Under former CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick compared to Dara Khosrowashai – the CEO brought in to provide ‘adult’ leadership at a time the company was plagued with controversies largely brought about due to failings in the leadership of the former.
First, look at some of Uber's values under Kalanick:
Champions’ mindset - put everything you have on the field to overcome adversity and get Uber across the finish line.
Meritocracy and toe-stepping – The best idea always wins. Don’t sacrifice the truth and don’t hesitate to challenge the boss.
Let builders build – people must be empowered to build things.
Always be hustlin’ – Get more done with less. Work longer, harder and smarter – and not just two of the three.
Principled confrontation – sometimes the world needs to change for the future to be ushered in.
Now, I love when an organisation shows what they truly value. No doubt, these values are indeed authentic and honest. All big ticks from me – but, it’s also easy to see embracing these values is a road map for the organisation to go off the rails and have aggressive and rapid expansion – which is exactly what happened.
So now, Ubers’ values under the leadership of Khosrowashai:
We build globally, we live locally – Harness the power and scale of our global operations to deeply connect with our cities, communities, drivers and riders that we serve, every day.
We celebrate differences – we stand apart from the average. We ensure people of diverse backgrounds feel welcome. We encourage different opinions and approaches to be heard and then come together to build.
We do the right thing – Period.
We value ideas over hierarchy – we believe that the best ideas can come from anywhere, both inside and outside of the organisation. Our job is to seek out those ideas, shape and improve them through candid debate and take them from concept to action.
See the difference? Which Uber do you want to work for?
The values from Kalanick’s leadership are aggressive and encourage assertiveness, machoism and the confrontation that, frankly, was needed to get Uber off the ground. Remember, Uber was faced with aggression, resistance and confrontation in every city they tried to operate within. The powerful taxi industry and its lobbyists, governments and even consumers were all against Uber. However, they effectively hard-wired their employees to these values, rewarded aggression and results- no matter the cost and crucially failed to pivot when they needed to, ultimately causing the plague of lawsuits. Uber failed to recalibrate. Failed to pivot when they needed to and failed to find the ‘middle ground’.
In stark contrast, under the leadership of Khosrowashai, company values at Uber changed somewhat dramatically. Note the words in Khosrowashais’ Uber values are softer. They are reflective of a ‘grown-up’ organisation. Values of an organisation that has pivoted and grown up after it lost its way.
Could Uber have become what it is today without the aggressive and assertive leadership and values from Kalanick? Probably not. Should Kalanick have pivoted sooner -say when their market share grew, and the organisational values become a liability? Absolutely.
So, what is the point of all this?
You may not agree with Ubers’ values under Kalanick, but they were undeniably effective in shaping the culture and driving business growth at Uber.
People want their company’s values to be sacrosanct. When they aren’t, the logical conclusion they will draw is that the organisation doesn’t mean what it says and that behaving in a way contradictory to the ‘values’ is preferable. According to a major study by Dvorak and Nelson (2016), just 27% of US employees believe in their company values. Just 23% strongly agree that they apply their organisational values to their work each day and 27% strongly agree they ‘believe in’ their organisations' values.
When organisational values are viewed as strategy navigation tools and reflected on when faced with decisions, they are irrefutably effective. Every time you are faced with a business decision, consult with your customer avatar (ideal customer), your values, your mission statement (goal) and your team.
Now, what did I mean when I said values are too often hijacked by marketing?
Frequently we see organisations using trendy buzzwords in their values. Ethical, sustainable, honest, transparent, equality and so on. Whilst there is nothing wrong with those being values, those same companies often get caught out for behaving exactly the opposite. They treated values as a marketing gimmick, misleading consumers to think their organisation shared the consumers' values when they did not.
This has of course been going on since marketers realised they could relate to consumers through values.
Example? I thought you’d never ask.
Here’s one from a major supermarket chain:
- We Satisfy And Delight Our Customers
- We Promote Team Member Growth And Happiness
- We Care About Our Communities And The Environment
- We Practice Win-Win Partnerships With Our Suppliers
If each employee from the top to the bottom, lives and breathes these values, I’ll eat my hat. But in reality, these ‘values’ are prominent on websites, so consumers see and read them and hopefully want to support such an organisation. I’m willing to bet the executive team has other values in mind. These are fluff pieces that don’t really tell you anything about the organisation.
Then we have the say less, do less….
Enron, given what happened with Enron, I think we can agree these are inauthentic if not straight-up untrue.
- Communication – We have an obligation to communicate.
- Respect – We treat others as we would like to be treated.
- Integrity – We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly, and sincerely.
- Excellence– We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do. (Enron, Annual Report, 2000, p. 29).
“honesty, integrity and respect for people”
Debatable at best? Uninspiring – absolutely.
So, how do you create honest, authentic and effective values? According to Dvorak and Nelson, to shift the organisational culture from what currently is to what could be business leaders need to ensure that the culture is:
- Clearly defined, communicated and managed as an extension of purpose and brand.
- Intentionally managed
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