V, as in... Values
By Frédéric Sos - January 17th 2020

"Explaining our values creates a bond!"

I'm surprised to note the alacrity with which executive teams undertake the exercise that consists of compiling and defending their corporate values. Moreover, we've observed that the time when HR Department Heads decide (since the impetus comes from them) to roll out such an exercise has a pattern to it: often upon noticing that values are not being upheld or even being undermined. So how to go about "restoring" them? When the External Communications Department also embraces this endeavor, the outcome winds up receiving coverage well beyond the company. What's the aim? Strengthening the company's brand image? Compensating for some of the company's less attractive features? Looking for a springboard to boost its standing?

While I have on occasion found exchanges among those seeking to explore and explain their values to be truly meaningful, I do remain somewhat skeptical of the actual benefit of such an exercise in rallying support for and enhancing a company's practices. As a matter of fact, regardless of the intentions behind this attempt at value explanation and regardless of senior management's level of commitment, all too often we've concluded that the end result tends to fall flat: typically 4 or 5 values packed into a single word that strives to encapsulate, alongside a few explanatory phrases couched as affirmations, more in order to justify the endeavor.

In the following case of a transportation and logistics firm, 4 keywords were cited, accompanied by some supporting language. For example:

  • "Entrepreneurship: At …, everyone acts in entrepreneur mode, driven by the desire to meet demanding challenges, through expressing a sense of responsibility, a quest for performance and innovation capacity. Initiative, risk-taking, efficient management guide our daily actions." Here's another example:

  • "Solidarity: At …, individual progress goes hand in hand with group success. Since challenges are overcome in a team setting, each member's handling of a mission exhibits transparency, integrity and loyalty."

The other 2 keywords were commitment and excellence. What's the impression upon reading these statements? The assumed intent to incorporate a maximum number of traits creates confusion. When questioned within the scope of our exchanges, senior managers have readily admitted that the exercise was basically fruitless. A manager, who happened to be among the participants least critical of the exercise, even confided in us that her contribution had exclusively consisted of hanging the 4 posters provided in her site's main meeting room.

In 2014, a corporate services group had assembled a 14-member task force to produce, on behalf of the Human Resources Director, the "company's set of core values". A few months later, their work was presented to the executive team in the form of a well-crafted, lengthy sentence integrating the 4 values they had derived. After a good minute of dead silence, the Managing Director asked the Head of HR to define the point of the exercise; visibly distraught by the question, she answered as if stating the obvious: "explaining our values creates a bond!".

And why not? One of these values, wedged like the cornerstone of corporate culture, was courage. In taking her response at face value, I submitted to the management team 3 situations recently encountered during my consulting assignments, in asking whether or not the cases aptly exemplified this value. The situations evoked were the following:

  • the Managing Director of a major public-sector investment fund is bound by a promise of due diligence, as regards certain matters relative to the Prime Minister's purview, yet without taking into consideration the doubts raised and alarm bells sounded by staff;

  • to reassure its primary shareholder, who has threatened to deleverage, the Managing Director of a public relations firm decides, despite the tense times, to relocate one of the firm's activities abroad;

  • a Marketing Director, when stepping into the post, unveils a "charter" of best practices that he'd like to impress upon his teams. Three weeks later, a Regional Director notifies him that one of his Key Account Managers had blatantly violated the charter. The KAM in question was one of the company's best producers, and the Marketing Director was tasked with implementing an appropriate response, and the employee wound up being dismissed.

While, in theory, the notion of courage had won unanimous approval among ExCom members, they still failed to adopt a consistent position on any of these situations.

Yet on the other hand, the discussions held were rather heated and served to establish stances and shape a precise frame of reference to better clarify the practices and behavioral traits perceived as embodying this value. The Head of HR suggested that as a follow-up each ExCom member repeat the exercise in stimulating the same discussion within his/her own team, and this for each of the 4 values. And such actually came to pass. The impact was truly spectacular: in just a few weeks, the exchanges led to an appropriation of these values and, even more importantly, to their application in operational terms, aided by adopting the relevant behavior and actions capable of generating a highly evocative "set of values".
I've got to confess that the impetus was driven from within and was felt to be both helpful and constructive. I won't tell you the rest of the story, which doesn't end well, hence reinforcing the conviction that success with this type of initiative is inextricably tied to the level of senior management involvement and their commitment to seeing it through to fruition.