Take a look at this list of corporate values: Communication. Respect. Integrity. Excellence. They sound pretty good, don’t they? Strong, concise, meaningful. Maybe they even resemble your own company’s values, the ones you spent so much time writing, debating, and revising. If so, you should be nervous.
These are the corporate values of Enron, as stated in the company’s 2000 annual report. And as events have shown, they’re not meaningful; they’re meaningless as the company ended up being one of the biggest corporate bankruptcies in history due to fraud.
Now I’m not for a second trying to suggest that these particular values are meaningless, in fact three of them are part of the core values at Georgian House (the other two being Growth and One team – one vision). Clearly however, there is a disconnect in some businesses between the values on their website or company handbook and what is evidenced in the real world, that disconnect is called behaviour which is what causes the disparity between reality and aspiration.
In order to ensure that your business has the right values to reflect the culture in your organisation and that these values drive the behaviours you desire to achieve your vision it’s important to think about these key factors:
Be aggressively authentic
For a values statement to be authentic, it doesn’t have to sound like it belongs on a greeting card. Indeed, some of the most values-driven companies adhere to tough, if not downright controversial, values. The values of an organisation should reflect what it really stands for so that employees and customers alike understand what they will be getting from that business. From an employee perspective it’s fundamental to ensure that the values of the business that you’re working for are at least aligned, if not completely reflective of your own personal values. If they are not, it will ultimately lead not only not being an engaged member of the team but becoming actively disengaged which can lead to personal discontent as well as being very much to the detriment of the team and the business.
Reality vs. aspiration
I once asked the managing director of a company that I was considering working for to tell me about the core values of the business, he said “speed and efficiency” without hesitation. So I asked him what that looked like in terms of managing quality in such a complex and varied environment, his reply was: “Well at the moment we’re too slow and spending too much time managing processes, which is why we need to make speed and efficiency our core values.”
That response reveals the confusion underlying many values initiatives. Far from being a core value, a sense of urgency didn’t even exist in the organisation. It was just an aspiration – a goal for the future. Too often, when values are written they do not truly reflect the culture of the business as it stands which leads to confusion and makes them meaningless to the team.
Own the process
It’s paramount for colleagues from all areas of an organisation to be involved in writing the values to ensure that they are lived and breathed, by taking an inclusive approach you are much more likely to reflect the true values of your organisation and embed them in the culture. Too often, companies hand off the effort to the HR department, which uses the initiative as an excuse for an inclusive feel-good effort but this is short lived and has little long term impact on the business. Empty values statements create cynical and dispirited employees, alienate customers, and undermine managerial credibility.
Integrate into everything
So let’s say you’ve nailed down the right values. What now? If they’re going to really take hold in your business, your values need to be integrated into every employee-related process, from recruitment to performance reviews, reward and recognition, career progression and even dismissal policies. From the first interview to the last day of work, employees should be constantly reminded that values form the basis for every decision the company makes. This is how you start to make sure that they’re something that is part of the everyday functioning of the organisation rather than just the dusty document on the shelf.
Values based leadership
To me, the most straightforward definition of culture is the way we do things around here and if the values are the building blocks of culture then by sheer logic you should be able to see them in the way things are being done in an organisation. As the saying goes, behaviour breeds behaviour and so leading by example is the first and most crucial step to ensuring that demonstrating the values and rewarding the desired behaviours leads to consistent and natural delivery across the entire organisation.
Whilst there is no doubt that financial KPIs are important in any commercial entity it’s driving the behaviours that really makes a difference and in fact the rewarding of certain KPIs can lead to the disregard of values. I have witnessed first hand in one hotel the head chef that was so focused on achieving his food cost bonus that corners were cut in terms of quality and food safety. Don’t get me wrong, leaders still have to oversee their team member’s ability to execute and be accountable for their role in mission success, but values-based evaluations can’t be an afterthought.
Times of change
But when an organisation is facing the need for some kind of change to remain competitive, cut costs, develop new products, become more efficient or improve quality, often times the culture is going to have to transform as well. Almost always. Because a new way of doing things requires a new way of thinking, especially from the leaders at all levels. Leaders must lean on the values of the organisation to drive performance, especially during times of change.
An organisation’s values should be the bedrock of why the company exists, how it makes decisions and its true purpose. At some point all great organisations have to define these things and ensure that they remain relevant if they want to maintain that positive trajectory. At Georgian House we reviewed our values last year to add growth and excellence to reflect that our belief is in growing our people to grow our business and that as we’ve developed the business we now strive for excellence in everything we do, good isn’t good enough anymore.
Make no mistake
Living by stated values can be difficult, especially in much larger and diverse businesses. After all, it’s much harder to be clear and unapologetic for what you stand for than to cave in to politically correct pressures. And for organisations trying to repair the damage caused by bad values programs, the work is even harder. But if you are willing to devote your time and energy to creating an authentic set of values, there’s a good chance that the resulting values will stand your company in far better stead than Enron’s did.
According to a 2016 cross-industry survey of managers, directors and business owners by PurpleCubed, ‘Culture and values unclear’ was one of the top-10 blocks to employee engagement.
Jane Sunley, Founder and Chairman of PurpleCubed says: “When organisations set out to improve their ‘people stuff’, the tendency is to dive into the tactical; some learning and development, a roadshow, a survey.
However since all successful journeys start with a clear goal in mind, the place to start should be in determining, simply and with great clarity, what the destination is. Then define the culture, vision and values to guide this journey every day, across every aspect of what you do. That’s 10% of the job; embedding them is the other 90%.
Maintaining a healthy culture is key if you’re looking for discretionary effort from your people (and you should be). Every single team member (and potential team member) must easily understand what you stand for and where you’re going. And this message has to be consistent throughout the organisation.
Values should be simple enough to remember since they are the thread that runs through everything you do. The best way to embed a culture is to get people to work out what behaviours they (in the context of their role) will deliver. Failing to do this is where companies often go wrong.Involving people builds trust, opening up honest, two-way dialogue in order to drive the business towards cultural success.”
By Adam Rowledge, who has been general manager of the Georgian House hotel in London since September 2015. Under his leadership, the boutique, Grade II-listed property has continuously invested into team development and guest experience, and won a number of prestigious industry awards.