The Value of Values

What are your corporate values? When was the last time they were demonstrated?

For many, corporate values are just empty words - certainly that's been true for most places that I've worked. A previous employer of mine have a list of 6 values. One of which is ambitious and as someone who would class themselves as highly ambitious, I was excited by the prospect of working for a company that values that quality. This was especially true when I was given the opportunity to show my ambition a few months into starting there and apply for a promotion to lead developer. The excitement quickly disappeared, however, when my manager responded: “I know you'd be perfect for the role, but unfortunately we have a process that dictates you must be a senior developer before you can be a team lead, and we have no openings for seniors”. I was even more surprised when I raised the oddity of this process with the product director, citing the ambition corporate value and was told that “Ambitious refers to being ambitious for the company, not individually”. I'm all for being a team player, but surely expecting someone to be ambitious about a company that wants them to ignore their personal ambition is absurd!

I realise at this point I'm at risk of simply sounding like a disgruntled former employee, but there is a point here - what is the purpose of corporate values? If they are purely there to serve as a marketing tool, then surely it's no surprise that they are meaningless - you can't just become something by saying that's what you are in the same way that you can't change people's values by telling them what you want them to be. Surely corporate values, therefore, aren't what a company simply says they are, but the shared values its employees hold.

Until I came to IBM, I probably would have told you that culture was just one among several important elements in any organization's makeup and success — along with vision, strategy, marketing, financials, and the like... I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn't just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value. Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., Former CEO of IBM

That seems to me to be the true value, for knowing what values your team members hold is a great asset. It allows you to begin to understand what drives and motivates your people and thus develop them in the best way for them, build the right culture and ultimately get the best out of them.

Culture, however, doesn't come in a box - it's a personalised product. Every team is different and what works for one, won't for another - There's no use organising a night out every Friday for a team who have young children, however for a group of young ambitious professionals it may help them to see themselves less as individuals and more as a team. Knowing what people value is the key to unlocking that personalisation.

There's tons of advice out there on how to find out peoples values, and when I wanted to do this recently with my team I chose a method suggested by Atlassian that you can read about it on their blog I chose to do this individually with each member of the team, rather than collectively so that I could compare how well they align with each other. Alignment of values is an interesting subject - too little leads to loss of team identity and will make building the right culture next to impossible, but too much leads to groupthink. Thankfully we seem to have just the right recipe of alignment on key issues but difference on a secondary level.

For a long time, I wondered what the purpose of corporate values were and was pretty convinced that they were useless and whilst in many cases they still are, that's only because they're being used for the wrong purpose - it's like trying to hammer a nail with a screwdriver. Once you see values as a definition of what you are, rather than a utopian view of what you should be, you can start to use them in valuable ways, like building the right culture and ultimately setting up the best environment for you and the people around you.

One final thought, I think it would be be really interesting to repeat the values exercise with my team in a few years and compare the results. We like to think our values are static, but I wonder if that really is true?…

Culture does not change because we desire to change it. Culture changes when the organization is transformed; the culture reflects the realities of people working together every day. Frances Hesselbein, Former CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA.