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Talking about Values is Good Business
by Bill Collier

Values? What do “values” have to do with business? In a word: everything!

Let me assure you – I see core values as a hard-nosed, nuts-and-bolts, common-sense business practice, just like reading a balance sheet or reducing costs. It’s simply a way to ensure that everyone on the team knows what is important.

This discussion isn’t about “touchy-feely.” It’s not about trust exercises or new-age mumbo-jumbo. 

Every business has a culture. (You new-age types can call it a “personality” if you want to.) The culture is formed over time and is shaped largely by the owner’s or manager’s input, but also by dozens of other internal and external factors ... employees, the industry you’re in, your location, customers, and on and on.

Some of these factors are beyond your control, but some are not. As an owner or manager, you can – and should - have a major impact on your company’s culture. You can let it happen or you can make it happen. Either way, a culture once formed is difficult to change.

So, what makes up a culture? All sorts of things. Workaholism versus eight-hour days. Fun versus serious. Honest versus dishonest. Friendly versus confrontational. Direct versus evasive. Lunch with others or eat at your desk. How employees dress, whether lateness is tolerated ... all this and much more is the stuff of company cultures. 

A big part of a business’ culture centers on the values that drive actions and decisions. You may not care whether your employees eat at the desk or go out, but you darn sure better care whether they are being honest with your customers. 

Here’s my recommendation for every company: Determine what values and principles are important to you, and then go about the serious work of injecting these values into the workforce.

If you don't spell out what's important, then the implication is that either nothing is important or everything is important - trouble either way.

Here’s an example: Let’s say Joe is an inside sales rep. He’s relatively new on the job, and was put in his position with a little product training but no orientation on what’s important to the company. He brought some bad habits, including making promises to customers and not following through. His manager doesn’t find out until a furious customer calls him directly. By now, though, Joe has done significant damage. The owner truly wants to do right by customers and genuinely cares about keeping commitments. Trouble is, he’s removed from day-to-day activities and has never really communicated his values to his people.

But Bob works at a different company, where it is commonly known that not keeping promises to customers is absolutely unacceptable behavior. In this company, the owners and managers “walk the talk” – setting a stellar example for others. This value is discussed in meetings and in new employee orientations, is used in performance reviews, and shows up on job descriptions. Do you think Bob shares Joe’s cavalier attitude toward commitments to customers in such a company? 

This is the difference between ignoring what’s important and building a values-based culture on purpose. 

Adopting a set of values is not about picking a litany of lofty goals that nobody can live up to. A company must identify those principles that the top people are passionate about and can adopt without hesitation. Employees watch company leaders like a hawk, and hypocrisy will kill a values initiative in a flash. 

What values to pick then? Each company must answer that question for itself. A technology firm might choose “innovation” as a key value. “Quality” could be a hallmark for a homebuilder. 

How you go about choosing your important values isn’t important, as long as sufficient time is taken to ensure you hear from all the important stakeholders. Gather input and kick it around. Don’t be afraid to include the rank-and-file in this process, either. Good ideas are not the exclusive domain of folks with private offices. By the way, these discussions are as close to “touchy-feely” as this gets.

I suggest that while you look at “what we want to be”, you also spend time on things like the founder’s values and vision for the company, what you’re about right now, and what values got you to this point.

Whatever values are chosen – and a handful is plenty – the company needs to really work at making them second nature for all the employees. This doesn’t happen overnight. About the time you think your staff is getting tired of hearing a message, that’s about the time it’s just starting to soak in.

Truly adopting this mindset means that all decisions are filtered through your values. Values are used in business planning, hiring, rewarding, promotions, and even in firing.

As cliché as it sounds, your values are in charge. You can't possibly watch every employee every minute of every day, nor should you want to. But, your principles do accompany every employee every minute of every day. Tell them: When in doubt, consult our values and make a decision.

Companies with broken cultures and flawed values can be fixed, but it’s a long haul. And, there’s an additional step – acknowledging past failures. Ownership has to meet with the staff and admit that the company has been off-course ... that ownership and management have allowed this to happen. But, here’s the new direction. Owners and managers will set the example. Old ways are out. One hundred percent buy-in is needed. 

Such announcements will no doubt be met with skepticism, but once employees see that management is serious, and this isn’t the “program of the month”, they’ll come around. Those who can’t or won’t have to go.

Here is perhaps the most powerful sign that it’s working: Your employees start enforcing the culture. When you hear one of them tell another, “That’s not how we do things around here”, you’ll know your hard work is paying off.

Here’s a summary of how values are chosen and how they are used:

  • Values are chosen that are important to all stakeholders and important to your success

  • Ownership and top management set the example

  • The company’s values are communicated frequently

  • Everyone buys in, enforces, and lives the values

  • All decisions are made with values in mind, including planning, hiring, rewarding, promotions, and firing

Notice that I haven’t said anything about sharing your values with customers. Certainly, many companies do this. It’s good to communicate what your firm is all about to your marketplace. But this should be the last reason to adopt a set of company values. 

Adopting and living up to a set of guiding values can literally transform your business. Don’t assume your people know what’s important – tell them. It’s hard work and a long process, but it will eventually have a positive impact on your bottom line.

Bill Collier is a St. Louis-based business coach, consultant and speaker. He is the author of the book “How to Succeed as a Small Business Owner … and Still Have a Life.” His website is www.collierbiz.com, and his email is bill@collierbiz.com


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