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5 tips for having company values as unique as your company

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

Let me ask you a question - if each company has its own unique mission, purpose, culture, products, services, etc., then why do so many have the exact same company values? This is the question I pose to companies time and time again, challenging them to take a fresh look at their values, asking themselves if they really achieve the following seven objectives:

  1. Define who we are as a company — helping us stand out from our competitors.

  2. Define our company culture — explaining what it’s like to work here.

  3. Guide and drive the right business and people decisions and actions so that we can achieve our purpose/mission.

  4. Help push us to be our best now and in the future.

  5. Represent what we look like at our best.

  6. Deliver a positive and consistent experience to our customers.

  7. Ensure a positive and engaging experience for our employees.

If one or more of the answers to these questions is no, then read on, where I will share with you five tips from my book on company values (Bringing Your Values Out to Play). These tips can help you discover or rediscover values which can achieve these objectives and support your business.

1. Are they servants to my purpose or mission?

The first question you should ask is, which values will help you be servants to your purpose or mission? Which will support, align and drive your company’s purpose or mission forward, keeping you focused on what your business is trying to achieve.

One of my favorite Olympic stories brings this concept to life, and is written about in the book Will it Make the Boat Go Faster by Harriet Beveridge and Ben Hunt-Davis. In it, they tell the story of how the British Olympic rowing team in 2000 used one single question, “Will it make the boat go faster?” to help them win a gold medal.

What I love about this story is that the British team were the underdogs (who doesn’t love an underdog, right?). In fact, if you listen to the commentator you’ll hear that up until the very end of the race he expected them to crash and burn, and to lose the lead they’d maintained throughout the race. But driven by their uncompromising focus on their mission of winning a gold through their commitment to their one question, they surprised the world and won. If in the business world, we adopt this approach of using our values as a way to stay true to our purpose and mission, using them to focus us in the right direction, then I strongly believe our workforce and businesses will perform and win in this competitive world we operate in.

2. Are they specific to my company?

Another question to ask is, which values will be specific to my company? I already said that they need to be specific to your purpose and mission, but this isn’t enough as you need to have values that specifically relate to and are meaningful to your culture and to your way of working, helping you say and do things in your own way? As Patrick Lencioni said in an article in the Harvard Business Review, “Cookie-cutter values don’t set a company apart from competitors; they make it fade into the crowd.” In addition to this, if you have values that are not specific to your company, employees will see them as just another thing that HR ‘did to them’!

To illustrate this point, here are six examples from companies I interviewed in my book who designed their own specific values that have their root in the concept of innovation:

  • Atlassian - Be the change you seek.

  • C-Space - Do what scares you.

  • giff gaff - Be curious: We talk. We listen. We challenge. We find a better way.

  • Nav - Unruly: Ruthlessly creative in challenging the status quo while never accepting roadblocks.

  • Reward Gateway - Push the boundaries.

  • Zappos - Be adventurous, creative and open-minded.

3. Can (and will) they be lived and acted on?

The next question, or rather point to make, is that once values are put in place there will be an expectation that they will be lived and acted on. This means that both the business and employees will be expected to behave and make decisions based on these, so make sure that they are not only liveable, but by acting on them it will drive the right behaviors.

Be absolutely clear about this upfront so that when ideas and values start to fill the wall, participants understand the consequences of each and every value. And remember, values aren’t just for good days, but for rainy ones, for ones when you need to easily and swiftly move from Plan A to Plan B. Effective values drive actions at all levels and at all times.

4. Can (and will) they take us to a new planet?

The next question is about the future, and looks at which values you need to take you to a new “planet”, achieving your future goals and objectives. In Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage he calls these aspirational values, saying that “They are neither natural nor inherent, which is why they must be purposefully inserted into the culture.”

Too often we focus on the here and now in the values exercise, so the more you can make this point about the future, the better chance you have at getting there safely, and, at the same time, not having to revisit your values again.

To illustrate this, let me share an example of what CarTrawler did as their company grew, evolving their values to support their growth. As Gillian French, former Chief People Officer, explained, “The company realized a change was needed to ‘grow up’ and support the emerging business. We asked ourselves, are our values serving us well, or do they need to change to be able to handle our further growth?”

An example was the change from the value of ‘Collaboration’ to ‘Smart Collaboration.’ The reason was that as the company grew it became clear that the old manner of collaboration wasn’t working; in fact, it was hampering development. They felt that ‘Smart Collaboration’ worked better as it encourages employees to deploy autonomy in their day-to-day tasks, setting them and the business up for success.

5. Do my values work together?

The final question, and one which many companies don’t consider, is, how will your values work together to get the job done? Too often individual values sit alone, or in some situations, conflict with each other, which makes it difficult for employees to decide if/when to live them. I like to think of them as puzzle pieces, working together to drive your people and business.

Here are two examples of how companies are doing this:

  • The first is from Expensify, where on their website they explain how their their values (or what they call Rules) ‘Get Shit Done’ and ‘Don’t Ruin It For Everybody Else’ work together as follows: “Both rules work in tandem to steer us quickly and safely on our journey: Rule #1 is the accelerator, driving us forward quickly, and in the right direction. Rule #2 is the brakes, ensuring we do so as a compassionate community, preventing us from going off the edge.”

  • The second example is from WD-40, who I interviewed for my book, who rank their values. As Garry Ridge, former CEO said, “We recognize that life is full of conflicts when it comes to living values. Sometimes you can’t honor two values at the same time. That’s why our values are force-ranked, and our first value, doing the right thing, is more important than all others.” says Garry Ridge, CEO.

I hope you’ve found this helpful. If you’d like to learn more about discovering and bringing your values out to play, please check out my book ‘Bringing Your Values Out to Play,’ my ‘DIY Values Toolkit,’ or contact me as I love talking about and helping companies discover and design unique and meaningful values. Wishing you all the best!


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