Values: It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it

Values - It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it

In the last twelve months, the topic of values has caught the imagination. Putting values at the center of everything your organization does can make all the difference in engaging and motivating employees and customers.

It is a year this October since our book about organizational values, THE 31 PRACTICES, was published and I wonder if you’ve noticed the increasing focus on values all over the world in this time.

In the past few days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the White House’s rebuke of his country’s settlement construction as “against American values”.  In UK, earlier in the year, The Mail on Sunday newspaper published an article by David Cameron, UK Prime Minister, about British values and the UK College of Policing published the final version of its new values-based Code of Ethics.  Meanwhile in China, the All China Journalists’ Association recently ordered its journalists to learn “Marxist news values”.

It’s happening in sport, too. The NFL has recently been in the spotlight over the conduct and behavior of players.  How much could be learned from England’s Rugby Football Union approach to delivering its purpose: To grow rugby in England through our values and performance?  The RFU’s Core Values project is the first time that a sport has defined its value system in formal terms:

Rugby Values

In English soccer’s Premier League, the coach of newly promoted Burnley, Sean Dyche, said: “It’s very difficult to be successful without key core values… When Spain win the World Cup…. or Oxford win the Boat Race, it’s rare that the first person who speaks says: “We were far more skillful.” Instead, they tell of the work ethic, the respect in the group, the camaraderie and honesty. It’s what I look for in my team.”

And in the corporate world, there was the largest IPO in history, Alibaba, where Jack Ma, co-founder and Executive Chairman, could not have stressed Alibaba’s values any more strongly.

“Values are moving from a PR exercise to become a guiding compass.”

In this organizational context, values are moving from a PR exercise to become the guiding compass, not only for progressive, enlightened organizations but for more well-established corporates, too.

Beyond formal organizations, movements to put values at the heart of society are gaining momentum in Sweden and UK, and others are forming in Canada, German speaking countries and India.  The likely next step is a global network of these movements.

The enduring power of corporate culture

Articulating ‘the way we do things around here’ through an explicit set of core values empowers employees to make decisions and facilitates creativity and innovation. The resulting corporate culture is powerful, as Ivan Misner, quoting Peter Drucker, reminds us: “Culture will always eat strategy for breakfast.”

In what way? Here are summaries of two of the most compelling explanations of the enduring importance of culture:

  • “Organizational culture does have an impact on financial performance. It provides additional evidence of the significant role of corporate culture not only in overall organizational effectiveness, but also in the so-called bottom line.” Eric Flamholtz
  • “Without exception, the dominance and coherence of culture proved to be an essential quality of the excellent companies [we identified] ….. the stronger the culture and the more it was directed toward the marketplace, the less need was there for policy manuals, organisation charts or detailed procedure and rules.” Tom Peters & Robert Waterman, In Search of Excellence

Just consider the example of Zappos: after just a decade of growth, this one time shoe retailer was acquired by Amazon for more than $1.2bn, Tony Hsieh, CEO and his team had built a unique corporate culture dedicated to employee empowerment and the promise of delivering happiness though satisfied customers and a valued workforce.  Hsieh says “We wanted to come up with a list of core values that were actually committable. By committable, we mean we actually hire and fire people based on each of those core values.”

The Value of Values in the Digital Age

The changing landscape for business is bringing values into even sharper focus. The internet and social media have brought greater transparency than ever before. Some years ago, it was possible for organizations to fabricate a marketing and PR ‘front’, but now the truth gets out – fast.  Just look at the disappearance of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World newspaper, a successful business since 1843 until advertisers and the general public turned against it for the way its employees behaved…allegedly.

Organizations are no longer what they say they are but what others say they are, and of course stakeholder perception is formed by the attitudes and actions of the employees.

Exploring your organization’s values

To explore your organization’s values, consider this: If your organization was a group of musicians, what group would it currently be? What would your music be like, your lyrics? How would the band members interact with each other and the fans? And, perhaps more importantly, what group would you like to be in future?

One member of a global corporate described their organization as like an elementary school orchestra: “lots of enthusiasm but no direction or coordination, and instruments that were long overdue an upgrade.”  They wanted to be like Rod Stewart, adapting their “brand” to win new fans but, at the same time keeping the old fans.  There was also something about the level of engagement: they wanted their customers to “be singing along with us and really enjoying being part of the performance”.  Time after time, this simple use of metaphor helps people think more creatively, feel less like they are being critical, and more easily able to identify core issues.

As Ella Fitzgerald (and Bananarama after her) sang: “T’ain’t what you do, It’s the way that you do it, That’s what gets results.”

What is the way you do it? And how alive are your organization’s values? Please comment below.

This post is adapted from the book Alan Williams wrote with Dr Alison Whybrow, THE 31 PRACTICES – Releasing the Power of Your Organisational VALUES Every Day.

Special Anniversary Competition: To celebrate the one year anniversary of the publication of THE 31 PRACTICES book, authors Alan Williams and Dr Alison Whybrow are offering three copies to the winners of a short competition.  Email the answer to these questions to (stating a postal address) by 31 October 2014:

  • Which musical band/group/artist is your organisation like and why and which one would you like it to be like and why?

Alison and Alan will choose their favourite three answers and send  copies of the book to these people.

About the Author

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Alan Williams

Faculty Alan Williams, SERVICEBRAND GLOBAL, coaches leaders of progressive service sector organisations, internationally and in the UK, to deliver values-driven service for sustained performance. He created the 31Practices approach to translating values into practical day-to-day behaviour and is a published author and speaker whose award-winning projects have delivered measurable business impact across a balanced scorecard. Alan is a past President of the Meetings Industry Association, a Fellow of the Institute of Hospitality, a Board member of BQF, a Founding Faculty Member of Culture University, a Steering Group member of the UK Values Alliance, and Founder of the Global Values Alliance.