Company Values: Be Colourful, Bold, Unique

Commonplace values such as service, integrity, and teamwork show mediocre ambitions. Make your values colourful, bold, and unique.

May 2022 | Practice

Once a company has clarified its purpose and agreed its mission, the next step is to work out how to get there. Corporate ‘values’ explain what matters to a business. Part description, part aspiration, values show what customers, shareholders, employees and society might expect as they engage with an organisation.

Sadly, many companies make poor choices in setting out their values. Lack of imagination here then diminishes a firm’s chances of achieving an ambitious or meaningful purpose.

Alignment, the power of values

Values are principles that can help align day-to-day work with business purpose:

Unite individuals through a common vocabulary
Align decision-making with the firm’s mission
Guide product and service development
Inspire people to excellent performance
Set standards for behaviours, work and outcomes

Words on the wall

The potential of values is easily lost, however. This happens in two common ways. The first is when the words are merely for show – on a meeting-room wall, in an annual report, or as an e-mail signature. Values have to be embedded into day-to-day work to be useful. This is true even when the words themselves are relevant and inspirational.

Redundant values

A second lost opportunity is to select weak values. Words can fall short in various ways. Most frustrating, perhaps, is when they are redundant because every organisation should uphold the principles they embody. After all, certain things may be taken for granted when dealing with a business. The four which I find most irksome are: customer service, integrity, innovation and teamwork.

These words and their kind are commonplace. As part of our Engage for Success work on organisational integrity and values, Mo CEO Luke Fisher researched the words used by FTSE-100 and other companies. He discovered that the following values appeared 233 times across just 312 companies: integrity, respect, innovation, excellence and teamwork.

Low bar for performance

How much more might these organisations achieve if their people rallied around loftier aspirations? After all, when it comes to the employee experience and setting standards for work, commonplace values represent a low bar. Customer service is a staple requirement for any business, and if colleagues do not deem this important the company will soon hit the wall. The same is true for innovation – a firm must develop products and services to keep up with today’s competitive markets.

To integrity, few people these days will work for an organisation that acts in a dishonest way. Integrity is fundamental to healthy relationships, without which a workplace will descend into mistrust and dysfunction. We hear more and more the question ’Is this the right thing to do?’

Teamwork is perhaps the most meaningless. The very point of organisations is to provide a framework for cooperation. Any company that does not foster teamwork is hardly a company at all.

Little differentiation for customers

Parallel concerns exist for the customer experience. These four values bring little differentiation to the brand. Customers rightly expect high-quality service. They increasingly abandon suppliers where people act dishonestly or demonstrate other failings of integrity.

Consumers realise that without teamwork the organisation will have little capacity to respond to their needs. The frustration of having to explain your bill query five times is only the tip of a dysfunctional iceberg.

New products are the the most powerful hook many companies have to generate repeat business. Finally, improved services are necessary to attract prospects and expand market share.

Bare minimum strategy

When companies espouse their commitments to customer service, integrity, innovation and teamwork, they are saying ‘We care about only the bare minimum’. Such businesses will fail to achieve an ambitious purpose and have a doubtful future in today’s competitive markets.

The words are colourless. And boring. It is not unreasonable to expect that the companies behind them are similarly bland, merely going through the corporate motions.

Powerful values

None of this is to say, of course, that customer service, integrity and so on do not matter. Quite the opposite. And Luke in his article makes a valid point: organisations differ in how they ‘operationalise’ values. They can always make the words their own.

Still, the question remains. Why make life harder by choosing bland, grey, redundant words when the language offers more compelling, more useful and more colourful choices?

Examples from industry

Customer service – Zappos, the online clothes retailer, has ‘Deliver WOW Through Service’. Innocent (the drinks company) encourages people to ‘Be natural’. Both phrases say something about the likely customer experience. They educate customers and inspire employees.

Integrity – Colgate encourages ‘Caring’, which encapsulates integrity and a meaningful relationship with its customers. The National Health Service (NHS) fleshes out the concept. ‘Respect and dignity’, ‘Commitment to quality of care’, ‘Improving lives’ and ‘Everyone counts’ all set clear expectations that people can act on.

Innovation – Squarespace’s ‘Optimize towards ideals’ describes how this web company arrives at better solutions. H&M commits to ‘Entrepreneurial spirit’ and ‘Constant improvement’, whereas IKEA lists ‘Constant desire for renewal’.

Teamwork – Müller’s ‘stronger together’ may sound a little hackneyed these days, but the term communicates something specific about the purpose and benefit of strong cooperation. Rackspace has ‘Treat Fellow Rackers Like Friends and Family’. Coca-Cola champions the rather special ‘Leverage collective genius’.

In summary

Taken-for-granted values show poor imagination and mediocre ambition. If your company truly aspires to a meaningful purpose, champion values that go beyond today’s commonplace expectations. Be colourful, be expressive, be bold. Most of all, perhaps, be unique.

Image Andrew Preble | Unsplash

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