Skip to main content
Start of menu
Close Menu
American Express® for Small Business - Built for Business Owners
14 Ways to Make Your Company Values Stick
A company's values need to be more than just words--if taken seriously, they can be the key to success.
How to Make Sure People Really Hear You

Author, Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations

This post originally appeared on OPEN Forum, an online community providing small business owners with information and advice to help them do more business.”

"Values are the key to making money, but only if a company truly takes values seriously," says Martin Carver, former CEO of Bandag, and executive-in-residence for the Kelly School of Business. Companies spend a lot of time creating values statements that end up being nothing more than words on the company website, or a poster hanging in the lobby.

Company values benefit customers, suppliers, employees and the community. Businesses with strong values, driven from the top down, are also able to attract and retain the best talent. All of this directly affects the bottom line. But for values to make a positive impact, they need to be a part of the corporate fabric—something that people live and breathe on a daily basis.

A great example of a company that does just that is marketing software firm Hubspot. (Watch how it treats values in this slideshare.) One of its values is, "We obsess over customers, not competitors." It translates that statement into actionable items: For every decision, it asks, what's in it for the customer? Will this delight them? Hubspot uses the acronym SFTC (Solve For The Customer) to remind employees to stay focused on their core value: educating customers, rather than exploiting them. It even goes as far as defining what obsessing over customers does not entail: "We shouldn't sell to a customer if we're not justifiably confident we can delight."

How can you make values meaningful in your own company or team? Here are 14 tips:

1. Make your values clear so everyone understands them. Values may have been crafted by a consultant or the marketing department, and may not always use language that's readily accessible to everyone. Values, like mission statements, need to be articulated in such a way that they easily flow from everyone's lips, whether they're in the boardroom or the boiler room. Companies often obsess over wordsmithing and end up with vacuous statements. Use concrete language that everyone can relate to and make the values clearly say what you care about.

2. Don't generalize: Turn values into specific operating principles. More often than not, values are generalized concepts that can be interpreted in various ways by different people. If you want people to truly live the values, make them actionable. Let's say one of your values is open communication. What does this look like in everyday behaviors? One of the actions aligned with the value might be: "Everyone in the organization, independent of position or title, is encouraged to provide criticism of anything they see that doesn't work." By giving specific examples, you place a road map in the hands of employees who are lost in the forest when it comes to espoused values.

3. Make values "committable." Take an inspiration from Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos. In this video, he outlines his company's 10 core values. He calls them "committable values," which means the company is willing to hire and fire based on whether people are living up to the values, independent of their job performance. This certainly sends a clear message that the company doesn't just pay lip service to the values.

4. Use the interview process to find people who have similar values—and hire those people. For each of your values, makes sure you have carefully developed a set of questions to probe for the candidate's fit with your values. Trust your gut feeling. For example, if one of your values is humility, don't hire an egotistical individual who shows signs of arrogance, convincing yourself that he "will add value to the company." Sooner or later, that person will be a negative influence on the culture you are trying to establish because he doesn't fit from the get-go. Make enough of these compromises in hiring, and the integrity of the values is eroded—people then stop paying attention to the values. As Jim Collins says, you can't install new core values into people. "People must be predisposed to holding them ... find people who are already predisposed to sharing your core values. . . attract and then retain these people and let those who aren’t predisposed to sharing your core values go elsewhere."

5. Seek employees' feedback on the values. Find out what people think about the values. Do they see others living the values? Are there day-to-day practices you may not even be aware of that conflict or contradict the values? Are the management practices effective in fostering the values? Does everyone even know what the values are?

6. Enforce values across the board. Make sure that every person in your shop or team lives the values—whether it's the sales clerk or the sales vice president, the manager or the machinist. Often values are the purview of upper management and don't filter down to every person in the organization.

7. Use your core values to empower employees. You can replace onerous policy manuals and handbooks by educating everyone on company values. It's impossible to come up with a rule for everything. Values become the compass that guides employees in making decisions. It empowers them to use their judgment. This is especially important today, with our global economy, where employees are scattered across satellite offices. Values are a company's megaphone.

8. Communicate the values often. Trust is at an all-time low. Research from the Edelman Trust Barometer shows that repetition enhances believability. Values are often considered a one-time event: Once they're crafted, laminated and posted, they are no longer referred to except perhaps at the Christmas party gathering. Take every opportunity to promote the values and keep them alive.

9. Set the example. Above all, ensure that you and your senior team live the values in all you do. Words, without evidence that the words are being applied, reinforce people's skepticism about the believability of corporate values. As Jim Kouzes puts it, "Titles are granted, but it's your behavior that wins you respect."

10. Understand the different types of values—and analyze to see where yours fall. Companies often mistake core values (who we are) with aspirational values (who we would like to be). Continuously talking about aspirational values as though they are the real values is a surefire way to fuel employee cynicism. In Make Your Values Mean Something, Patrick Lencioni adds two other categories of values: permission-to-play (the minimum behavioral and social standards required of any employee) and accidental (which happen spontaneously within a team and take hold over time.) Sift through your values and ask yourself which ones are the true core values.

11. Put a monetary value on your company's values. A study shows that less than 50 percent of companies measure their ROV (Return On Values.) Give some thought to how you can show your people the direct link of values to revenue and earnings growth. It pays to reinforce the importance of values to the health of your company.

12. Uphold the values in good times and bad times. What a company does in times of adversity is even more important than what it does when all is going well. In 2008, Maple Leaf Food was implicated in a foodborne illness caused by an outbreak of Listeria. One of the company's values is "Do What’s Right: By acting with integrity, behaving responsibly, and treating people with respect." And what did CEO Michael McCain do in response to the crisis? He immediately took responsibility, posted an apology on the website and said: "Certainly knowing that there is a desire to assign blame, I want to reiterate that the buck stops right here … our best efforts failed, not the regulators or the Canadian food safety system … I emphasize: this is our accountability and it's ours to fix, which we are taking on fully."

13. Beware of the small infractions. A Fortune Magazine article on why companies fail talks about how actions that spiral a company down are the result of an incremental descent into poor judgment: "A 'success-oriented' culture, mind-numbing complexity and unrealistic performance goals all mixed until the violation of standards became the standard." While this refers to big companies doing bad things, the concept applies to everyone, no matter the size of the company: Small integrity slips have a way of slowly diluting a company culture. Make sure that disrespecting the standards doesn't become the standard behavior.

14. Always show leadership. Proactively manage your own behavior. You have total control on how you deal with your employees and customers. Show leadership in everything you do, and you will have improved your corner of the universe. It might even spread to others. What a wonderful contagion this would be.   

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

Photos: Thinkstock; iStockphoto

The opinions expressed in this article are those of its individual writer, and do not necessarily state or reflect the views of American Express Canada or Amex Bank of Canada. Third party web sites may have privacy and security policies different from Amex Bank of Canada. Links to other web sites does not imply the endorsement or approval of such web sites.

Talk to a Small Business
Sales Consultant
Fill out the form below and small business sales consultant will contact you within two business days.

This email address will be used only to respond in providing you with further card product information.

Language Preference

The information you provided will be used to contact you and provide you with information on our products and services.
Yes, you may use my email address to keep me informed of the occasional offer and promotion from American Express. You should only provide an email address that you are the owner of or have consent from the owner to use for this purpose.