With Martin G. Moore

Episode #10

Are Company Values Meaningless? Lead through your OWN values

  • A really interesting perspective from Denise Lee Yohn who wrote a brilliant HBR article in early 2018 about the five words that should be banned from corporate values statements

  • Some of my rules of thumb for how we should view the corporate values statement

  • A great example of a company who I think walks the walk in terms of their company values – they have built their values into their DNA and I’ve seen this first hand

  • How leaders can lead through their personal values even if they are different to those values that the company sets (first step to getting this right: you’ve got to eat your own dog food!)

The punchline of this episode is simply to pay attention to your values, and the leadership brand that you’re creating for yourself. Company values have a place, but ultimately, it’s more important to develop and live by your own personal values – that’s what will turn you into a person that other people will follow willingly.

You want people to aspire to be some of the things that you are already, in their own unique way.

To help you with this, I put the key points into a PDF for you ‘The 7 Ways to Set Values & Lead Through Them’ which you can download below.


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Episode #10 Are Company Values Meaningless? Lead through your OWN values

Leaders tend to talk glowingly about their own values, and every organisation has an advertised set of them. But how many actually behave in accordance with their values?

Let’s talk about how to get this right.

  • I’m going to cover why corporate values are so often meaningless.

  • I’ll talk to you a little bit about an HBR article from early 2018, which was pretty interesting.

  • I’ll give you some rules of thumb for how we should view the corporate values statement.

  • Then I’ll talk about individually, how leaders lead through their values.

Before we start, I’m dedicating this episode to Wayne Patterson. Wayne passed away recently from Motor Neurone Disease at the age of only 62, way too young. Wayne was an outstanding leader, and when I said I can count the number of outstanding leaders I’ve worked with on one hand, he was one of them. He inspired me greatly, and I learned a huge amount in the three years that I worked for him.

Wayne was the Chief Executive who hired me at National Transport Insurance, and on my first day, he took me out to lunch to explain the business to me. But, what sticks in my mind the most is how he described the company values to me. He made it really personal and, I’ve gotta tell you, that this has really guided how I’ve worked ever since.

Wayne leaned in across the table and looked at me and he said, “Whenever you have to make a decision, reference the company values. If you make your decision in accordance with those, then that’s a really good thing to do, because if, in retrospect, you can show me how you’ve done that, and how your decision was to meet the corporate values, then you’ll be okay with me. It doesn’t matter whether the decision turns out to be good, bad, or indifferent. Obviously if you keep making bad decisions, we’ll have a chat about that, but you get the point.”

So, why are corporate values so often meaningless?

Well, CEOs and boards feel as though they have to have a set of values, but often they just come up with something that sounds noble and aspirational. If you Google “corporate values,” there’s only about two dozen of them you can choose from.

Now, I’ve done a quick recce on some examples of corporate values from a number of different companies.

In National Transport Insurance case, with Wayne, we had five values: honesty and integrity, respect for others, responsibility for outcomes, a bias for action, and staying close to the customer. I’ve gotta say, more than any organisation I’ve been in, they actually did try to live by the values.

Now, it was a relatively small organisation, so you could keep a really firm hold on this, even a CEO. And Wayne certainly did.

But let’s look at a few others, and I’ve picked these just for fun.

The company called GoDaddy, which is a tech company, has over 5,000 employees, and they have five values: be extraordinary, own outcomes, join forces, work fearlessly, and live passionately.

How many of the 5,000 employees do you think work fearlessly and live passionately? Nice an aspirational, but what does it actually mean?

Or Salesforce. It’s a big company, 27,000 employees, that specialises in CRM and tech software. They have nine values: trust, customer success, growth, innovation, giving back, equality for all, well-being, transparency, and fun.

With nine values, how many of those 27,000 employees do you think even know what they are?

Here’s another one. CarMax. 8,000 employees, it’s an online car sales platform. They have 10 values, so once again, how are you gonna remember them, but: customer focus, respect, teamwork, communication, diversity, associate development, fun, quality, pride, and continuous improvement.

I don’t even know what “associate development” is, but it’s actually listed as a value.

Look, finally, just for shits and giggles, go and have a look at some of the Australian banks, insurance companies, and superannuation funds that are coming in for scathing criticism at the moment for the way they’re behaving.

Some have no values at all on their websites. Those that do largely prioritise them with about the same importance as the site map. It’s put there because you sorta have to have them, but otherwise you wouldn’t even bother doing it.

So what’s my point? Well actually, I have a few.

  1. Values are actually important, at least make it easy for your people to work out what they are.

  2. Make sure your values describe the behaviours and culture that you want to have.

  3. Hold your leaders to account for delivering upon them.

  4. You’ve gotta use that filter when you’re hiring and firing, and performing day-to-day. It’s gotta be something that changes your selection processes to make sure that you’re getting people that are culturally fit for your business.

  5. Make sure they’re sensible. They should be aspirational, but not silly.

  6. Remember that everyone in your organisation, it doesn’t matter how many people you have, will interpret them differently, because they look at them in different ways, and have different filters.

If you really want to get serious about values in your organisation, then follow those really simple steps.

A lot of you don’t get to set the values, and that’s a completely different story that we’ll deal with shortly.

Ban These Five Words From Your Corporate Values Statement

There was a really fun article in Harvard Business Review in February of 2018, and the article was entitled, “Ban These Five Words From Your Corporate Values Statement.” This was by a woman by the name of Denise Lee Yohn, who’s a brand and marketing expert, and clearly her marketing expertise has come to play in the title, because I defy anyone to read that headline and then not be compelled to read the article. But it had some really interesting points in there.

From a lot of research that’s been done across hundreds and hundreds of companies, they find that 90% of all values statements have a value to be ethical or to have integrity somewhere in there. 88% of values statements mention the customer, and 76% mention either teamwork or trust.

I’m gonna get straight to the punchline: what are the five words you should never use in a values statement?

  1. “Ethical” or “integrity.” Yohn says, “This should be a given,” and asks why you would want to draw attention to it. Now I actually implemented “act with integrity” as one of CS Energy’s values, because it actually was a problem in some parts of the business.

  2. “Teamwork.” She says, “This is just common sense.”

  3. “Authentic,” and I really agree with this, “You can’t claim to be authentic, you either are or you aren’t.”

  4. “Fun.” She says, “Fun? Seems like you’re trying too hard. If you have to say it, then you probably aren’t.”

  5. “Customer-oriented.” “If you’re not, you don’t last long in business.”

The bottom line for me is, if you’re ever in a position that you either have to devise or have influence over some company values statements, then think about why you’re doing it.

In my opinion, the values of an organisation should reflect and describe the culture that the Chief Executive and the board are trying to create.

At CS Energy, when I recast the values in 2013, I chose the things that, in my observation, for my first six months in the role, I determined were the most essential in taking the company forward in the right way, and to develop the right culture. So there were only four values: be safe, create value, take accountability, and act with integrity.

These values didn’t just fill up some space on our website. These were values that I expected every single leader in the organisation to espouse, to understand, and to promote within their work groups. We had a whole lot of mechanisms for how that was done.

In many cases, I suspect that the culture is very, very different from the stated values. The only way you find out, though, is when you get really close to it, for example, as an employee. And were you to ask an employee if a company is really like the values that are on the website, I suspect you get a pretty large divergence from what the published view of the world is.

I’ve worked in business where my personal take on the culture could only be encapsulated in values like “individual greed” or “political manipulation,” “upwards management,” “every woman for herself,” or, “be a yes man.” And they don’t sound anywhere near as aspirational, do they? But they would more accurately describe some of the cultures that I’ve worked in.

How do leaders actually lead through their values?

Well for a start, if leaders don’t talk about it and demonstrate it, it simply won’t happen.

There are a lot of people throughout organisations, and I’m talking about from the board of directors down, who think that values and culture are a crock of shit. And so you’re always going to struggle to bring them on board.

But it doesn’t really matter what your website says. Your personal values will shine through loud and clear, and everyone will see them.

One of the most impressive examples that I’ve seen in my career is the Lemos shipping business. It’s a family business that’s been operating for over 150 years, now run by brothers Filippos and Andonis, who are relatively young, although I guess that more and more people are starting to look young to me.

These guys have the gravitas that comes from running a successful global business that has survived through a number of generations. But their integrity, and their sense of responsibility to the greater good, is obvious in everything that they do. They are incredibly impressive in the values they espouse, and it’s clear in the way that not only they, but also everyone that works for them that you come into contact with, does business.

They don’t need to have their values on their website, because it’s in their DNA, and it’s as plain as day when you do business with them.

All of this is leading back to a very simple and common point…

Eat your own dog food, and walk the walk. That’s all it is. So question yourself. Do you have consistency with the values of the organisation you work for?

If you’re the CEO, the answer to that had better be a yes, because you need to make sure that the stated corporate values are right in line with your own personal values and behaviours, because your people will smell it if they aren’t.

But if you’re not the CEO, you need to at least make sure that you’re not out-of-bounds, and that you can live within the framework of the corporate values.

I think from all that we’ve discussed so far, one thing is really clear: what you do personally sets the tone for your people much more than the words on the cover of the annual report. Every leader has a personal blend of behaviours that are distinctive and unique.

Your people will know your values by seeing what drives your decisions, and what drives your behaviours. They don’t watch your lips, they watch your feet. So you’d better know what your values are, to the point that you can articulate them if necessary.

But more importantly, ask some of the people who are close to you what they think your values are, and to describe your values, because quite often, what our intent is, and what we think we’re projecting, is very very different from what we’re actually doing, or how what we’re doing is being interpreted by our people.

If you’ve listened to many of my podcasts, you could probably already have a pretty good stab at what my values are. But look, let’s be real. You’d need to be closer to me to work out if this is genuinely how I behave, or just how I talk.

As a leader, my style actually doesn’t leave much to the imagination. The values that I live and lead by, and the things that you see, are what creates my unique and differentiated brand.

For me, it’s a couple of simple things:

Duty of care for the people in my charge, and that’s everything from keeping them safe when they come to work, to making sure they have solid leadership.

Creating commercial value in everything that gets done. So, it’s not about activity, it’s about value. And any activity that doesn’t lead to value gets stopped.

Courage, accountability, and contribution. Absolutely critical. I build people up through stretching them, and setting high standards of performance and behaviour, and expecting them to meet that.

No tourists. I always try to do what’s right when it needs to be done, without fear or favour. It doesn’t matter whether it’s good for me or not. If it’s for the greater good of the company, and the people that I’m working with, then that’s what gets done.

And then, fearless challenge to improve the outcomes. I expect it from myself, and I expect it from the leaders around me.

These formulates my unique brand. I’ve spent years growing into this, and I’ve gotta tell you that five years ago, and certainly 10 years ago, my brand was very different, because my values have evolved since then because over time, I’ve put a huge amount of effort into becoming better.

I’m obviously pretty happy with where I am now, otherwise I would never have the confidence to write this.

But the punchline for you is, pay attention to your values, and the leadership brand that you’re creating for yourself. You have to be a person that other people will follow willingly.

We’ve spoken about the use of power, and if you can actually have power that derives from your personal status, it’s gonna be the wrong way of getting things done. You can force people to do some stuff because of your position, but you’ll never have loyal followers who are gonna go above and beyond. You want people to aspire to be some of the things that you are already, in their own unique way.


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