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  • David S Cohen

The Value in Values

A few months back, I spoke to a group of CEOs, Presidents and CFOs about values. There were approximately 60 companies represented from across the North American insurance sector. To get things started, I asked them to list their organization's values on a piece of paper and cross them out as those words get mentioned by the rest of the group. My aim was to see how many organizations would have any unique values left once the repeats were discounted.

I assured everyone that they didn't have to know all their values, nobody would tell on them back at the office. After a laugh of relief, we got rolling:

  • Teamwork

  • Diversity

  • Empowerment

  • Communications

  • Passion For winning

  • Customer Service

  • Communications

  • Partnership

  • Innovation

  • Respect

  • Integrity

  • Honesty

  • Quality

  • People

Suddenly, there was silence. I looked around and saw that everyone's list had already been exhausted.

“So, all your values are the same?" I asked. Well, the words are the same, I was told with annoyance.

“Does it even matter which company you lead, since you all have a corresponding set of values?" Are you kidding, they said? Our cultures couldn't be more different.

But what is company culture other than values brought to life? In most organizations culture grows in the dark. Lt is the set of norms, language, attitudes and behaviours that get recognized and rewarded. Consciously or not, organizations hire, fire, promote, celebrate, strategize and react based on their real day-to-day values. Sometimes these living values are in line with an organization’s stated values: sometimes they are in direct opposition. Either way, the leadership team sets the tone and steers the values in what they do and say, operating as living examples and stewards. When it comes to values, it's all about do as I do, not as I say.

Values are emotionally charged. Cross them and you will hear about it - no matter who you are. Live up to them in tough times and you will become legendary, the kind of person the organization is “all about". Values are what make people committed to and passionate about an organization. Individuals buy into an organization's values at a deep level, moulding their behaviour in accordance. When those values are violated, people leave; when they are lived, people enhance their level of commitment, passion and contribution. If you think that being clear and consistent about values does not affect your bottom-line, think again.

So how does a vanilla list of values become a living, breathing testament to an organization's core? My group of CEOs were right, values are just words. But they are words that cannot be benchmarked, adapted or borrowed from somewhere else. They are words that have to reflect the actions and behaviours the organization truly believes in and lives. They need to be articulated not just in catch phrases and consulting clichés but also in concrete descriptions of actual behaviours, specific enough that interpretation is never an issue.

When values are clear and consistent, individuals know the difference between right or wrong, yes or no, organization-wide, regardless of level, role or responsibility. That's a wonderful gift to everyone involved. With clear values, leaders have clarity of message: managers have clarity for standards of excellence; and employees have clarity on the rules for success. If any one of my insurance CEOs, presidents and CFOs had been able to clearly describe their own organization’s living values, they might have really stood out from the pack - not just in the room but also in the minds of their employees, customers and shareholders and in their crowded competitive market.