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Oct 14, 2014

In the last 12 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 since?

Values and culture in sports

It’s happening in sports, too.

The National Football League 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 (and you can find a list of those values here) is the first time that a sport has defined its value system in formal terms.

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 wins the World Cup … or Oxford wins 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.

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 companies, too.

Beyond formal organizations, movements to put values at the heart of society are gaining momentum in Sweden and the United Kingdom, 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, organization charts or detailed procedure and rules.” — Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, from In Search of Excellence.

Just consider the example of Zappos. After just a decade of growth, this shoe retailer was acquired by Amazon for more than $1.2 billion. CEO Tony Hsieh 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  — and 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?

This post originally appeared on, and some content is adapted from the book Alan Williams wrote with Dr Alison Whybrow, The 31 Practices – Releasing the Power of Your Organizational Values Every Day.