Yes, leaders should care about ‘values’

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With so many of our institutions in the dock and charged with bad behaviour, I felt compelled to investigate further.

These organisations and the people that lead them are having their values questioned – but can values really make any difference? And when it comes to the world of commerce specifically, can big businesses do good and do well?

At first glance it would appear not. Most of the organisations gracing our screens have corporate values above reception, in their annual report, and plastered all over their walls. And yet they have failed to prevent poor behaviour. The truth is that your values are what you do, not what you say. And they aren’t worth a damn without leadership.

So what can leaders do?

First they have to care passionately about values – not because they are being told they should, but because they believe they will create a stronger enterprise. It is all too easy for an organisation’s values to become a mechanism for preventing toxic behaviour and nothing more. But should values not be more than just a way to raise the floor?

Behind most success stories, you can find values being used to challenge and stretch people, to raise the ceiling on what is possible. These values speak to our best selves, rather than trying to restrain our worst impulses.

Research shows that values that are aspirational for your people will not only breed good behaviour – they put customers at the heart of all you do, push people to think harder and do more, drive people to innovate and collaborate.

There’s a lot of talk about leaders modelling values. But when we talk “modelling”, what we actually mean is showing that you mean it.

That means recruiting for those values, and not hiring (and even firing) when those values are not present. It means recognising team members when they live them, and holding them to account when they don’t. Most of all, it means making a painful values-driven decision when it might be easier or more profitable to go the other way.

And if you really care, that care shows in the effort and expertise you put into defining these values in the first place. It’s an obvious point, but organisations with values that are simple and memorable stand far more chance of seeing them live in the day-to-day.

Creating values with cut-through and impact requires ruthless prioritisation. Go after the things that will make the biggest difference to your customers and your bottom line.

And get specific. Aviva wants their people to “kill complexity”. J Sainsbury asks their people to “spend every penny like it is their own’. The team at Liverpool Victoria “fight for better”.

Imagine being asked to do any of those things versus being told “at Profit Inc., we value respect, teamwork, and collaboration”.

Ultimately, though, if you want your people to operate a certain way day-to-day, you had better make sure your leaders are leading from the front.

No matter how in vogue it is to talk about the upside-down organisation, holocracy, or distributed leadership, we are still at heart a primate species. We look up. If your leaders aren’t putting in the hard work to live true to your values, then why should anyone else bother?

We need only look at the recent Carillion debacle to understand that imperative. Creating paper values that leaders neither cared about nor led for meant the wider organisation never felt commitment.

In an era of continuous change, organisations need the energy and focus that a compelling and stretching set of values can create more than ever. Done badly, they create cynicism and indifference. Done well, they are the fuel that powers your business.