Crafting Core Values of Value

Too many companies settle on the predictable
Decorative Image
Illustration by Lindsey Masterson

Your organization probably has core values, but do your core values have teeth?  By “teeth,” I mean, are your core values powerful and prescriptive? The way to give your core values teeth is to integrate and align them with your desired brand identity.

What are core values? They are the essential and enduring principles and priorities that prescribe the desired mindset and behavior of everyone who works at your company. In other words, they are the operating instructions for your organization — the cornerstone of your organizational culture. Your values should describe the attitudes and beliefs that you desire from all employees and help them translate those attitudes and beliefs into specific actions and decisions you want from them. Ultimately it should be clear how those behaviors produce the results you’re looking for.

In my experience as well as the research I did for my book FUSION: How Integrating Brand and Culture Powers the World’s Greatest Companies, I’ve found that most organizations don’t have core values that do this — most core values don’t have teeth. Most organizations use generic platitudes for their core values, such as “we operate with integrity” or “we value respect and teamwork.” These values don’t say anything meaningful, and therefore, they don’t make a difference.

Values schizophrenia

I’ve also found that most organizations operate with two sets of values — one set speaks to internal workplace values that are intended to guide employees’ behaviors and decisions; and a separate set of desired brand attributes and values that describe the way they want their brand to be perceived by customers. In other words, companies state values through which they engage their employees that have little to do with the way they want their employees to engage customers.

Case in point: I recently came across a company whose website talks about:

»offering the most innovative, world-renown products

»providing the most up-to-date service, and

»solving the root of their client’s problem, not just the surface symptoms.

Those values seem really compelling and differentiating. But that same company’s internal core values use the same well-worn buzzwords and bromides that pretty much every company has in their list of core values, such as:

» Great work ethic

» Respect for others

» Excellence in service

Do you see the problem? There’s a huge gap between what the company promises to do for customers — its brand identity — and the culture it expects employees to embrace to do it. And this company is not alone. Many companies suffer from values schizophrenia, with huge disconnects between internal and external values. These disconnects not only prevent you from delivering on your brand promise, but could possibly lead to risk and crisis.

Wells Fargo Sign

Photo by Bob Pardue – Signs / Alamy Stock Photo

Consider the disconnect at Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo has always claimed a wholesome brand identity, using an image of a horse-drawn stagecoach, an old-fashioned looking logo and holiday ads about working hard to make sure kids got their toys in time. But then a few years ago, thanks to some whistleblowers and the resulting investigations, we found out what the company was really like. Employees had been creating phony bank and credit card accounts in customers’ names without their permission. They were doing this because they were trying to make impossible numbers that their managers expected them to hit.

Wells Fargo suffered significantly from this debacle. It would have been hard enough for the company to regain people’s trust given how egregious the problem was — but it’s been particularly damaging and difficult for Wells Fargo because the corporate culture was so completely disconnected from the external brand identity the company aspired to.

One set of unique values

To eliminate the gulf between organizational and brand values, you should use one set of core values to describe the unique way you do things on the inside and the outside. And when you do this, you’re more likely to have core values with teeth because they will be unique.

Most companies’ core values aren’t unique. The folks at ProHabits, the company that makes a leadership development skills and training program for managers to activate values and improve performance, recently conducted an analysis of the values at Fortune 500 companies. It examined 2,054 core values from 397 organizations that made them publicly available on their company website.

Their analysis revealed that those 2,000+ values could be classified into only 56 distinct value categories — and a few core values were shared by the vast majority of companies. For example, over 80% of the companies they examined claimed “integrity” or some version of it as a core value. They also found that all but five companies included at least one of the top 10 values/value categories within their own list of values.

ProHabits’s categorization of the values involved some subjectivity, and I don’t agree with all their coding (for example, within the category of “integrity,” they included companies that stated values including “common sense,” “justice” and “self-esteem.”) But in looking at the investigation as a whole, the conclusion remains: Most companies’ core values are boring and banal, and therefore, most core values are ineffective.

If you articulate vague and vapid values that sound like any other company in your category, at best your employees will produce results like any other company in your category.  At worst your people will start making stuff up.

That’s what happened at Wells Fargo. During the time when its employees were engaged in the unlawful and unsavory practices, the company’s stated values were:

» People as a competitive advantage

» Ethics

» What’s right for customers

» Diversity and inclusion

» Leadership

These values were so generic, they were like wallpaper. So people adopted their own set of values, and that’s what led to the company’s problems. Your core values should express the specific ways you want your employees to think and act in order to produce the specific outcomes, including brand identity, that you want.

Integrate and align

It doesn’t matter if you want your brand to be trailblazing or traditional, spirited or steady. What matters is that you use one set of unique core values to shape what you want employees to do on the inside of your organization as well as what you want customers to think on the outside.

Take Amazon for example. Amazon calls its core values “leadership principles” and these principles include values such as “think big” and “invent and simplify.” The company uses these values to guide its employees’ attitudes and actions. These values are also what the company wants its brand to be known for on the outside. There is no confusion, no waste, no disconnect.

Of course, you have to operationalize your core values for them to have any real impact. And establishing your core values is a process of both identification and aspiration — you can’t just make them up. But getting your core values right is critical to the culture of your organization. Start with ensuring your core values have teeth.

The Top 10 most common values/value categories ProHabits found were:

  1. Integrity – 81%
  2. Teamwork – 41%
  3. Innovation – 34%
  4. Customer – 31%
  5. Respect – 29%
  6. Excellence – 25%
  7. Diversity/Inclusion – 20%
  8. People – 18%
  9. Safety – 18%
  10. Community – 18%

Denise Lee YohnDenise Lee Yohn is a brand leadership expert and author of the bestselling books What Great Brands Do and FUSION: How Integrating Brand and Culture Powers the World’s Great Companies.


USION: How Integrating Brand and Culture Powers the World’s Great Companies What Great Brands Do by Denise Lee Yohn








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Categories: Company Culture