Moving Your Culture From "Meh." to "Yeah!" - Part 1 - Words
Updated: Jun 15
"67% of employees are giving you their time, but not their best effort or ideas"
Gallup’s Global State of the Workforce Report says. Despite millions being spent on employee engagement surveys and assessments, that figure hasn’t really budged in a couple of decades. So, what’s gone wrong?
In the first of three articles, I want to talk about how we move from this “Meh!” situation, punctuated by that high level of presenteeism, to a “Yeah!” culture, where people love what they do, who they do it for and with, and feel like they can be their personal best, every day. For me, it all starts with having a set of core values that really lay down the tone for the way your company “does business.”
So many organisations today have a set of company values. They’re supposed to set the blueprint for “the way things get done around here.” The intention of these words is to guide, inspire and act as the conscience for our daily behaviours. Actions with an attitude that will result in the company successfully delivering their goals. The sad reality, however, is that they very often miss the mark and become a generic list of ubiquitous words or phrases that could be attached to any brand logo.
In my opinion, they generally lack a couple of vital ingredients that move them from “Meh!” to “Yeah!”:
They are relevant to what you do and link to the delivery of your Vision & Purpose, and
They differentiate you from your competition.
The words you choose are so important and separate out the winners, where they actually mean something and result in a positively aligned culture, and the losers, where you’ve wasted your time re-inventing another form of corporate wallpaper, that no-one looks at or pays any attention to.
I recently attended a business forum where one business owner took the audience through their personal journey of how they turned around their business on the back of a set of core values. They were distinctive, rooted in reality, supported the future direction of the company and ultimately decided by the employees of the business. It was really great to see. But, no sooner had the guy completed his presentation than he was challenged by a delegate who heckled,
“So, you didn’t include Integrity. Isn’t Integrity important to your business, then (*smirks*)?”
This to me typifies the issue that’s affected the usefulness and effectiveness of core values in business over the last few years. I don’t know whether it’s a WOKE-thing, or just the fact that people are getting confused as to what the purpose of such values are, but to me “integrity” isn’t a word I’m going to allow on my watch. I’ll explain why.
I think there’s a real difference between baseline pre-requisites for operating a business and having a value set that really sets alight an organisation, differentiates it from the pack and gives its employees clear direction and guidance every day. If you don’t have to think about your values, then I think you’re missing the point of them.
“Integrity”, to me at least, is a pre-requisite, not a core value. Unless you’re working in a totally corrupt industry or competitive set, having “integrity” isn’t, I hope, going to set you apart from the competition and help drive a culture that is uniquely you. “Integrity” isn’t alone in being on my “Meh!” list either. It’s accompanied by words such as Team, Genuine and Customer-focused. I’ll even chuck in “Fun” too. Why? Because they aren’t distinctive. They might well be important, basic factors to compete, but they are not going to set you apart and excite your people. “So, being customer-focused isn’t important either, Andy?” No, that’s not what I’m saying.
I think stating you’re customer-focused as part of your core values is just “Meh.”
I personally think it’s another pre-requisite. However, if it really plays a part in how it uniquely sets you apart, then you need to express that differently, in a way that oozes you. For example, Amazon’s success has arguably been built on its focus on the customer, however, it expresses that as “Customer Obsession.” This has a whole different feel to it and conveys a specific attitude the company takes to thinking about the customer at an extreme level. That’s moving from a culture from “Meh.” to “Yeah!” in my opinion. In this case, it captures a company’s specific spirit and essence.
A further great example of this comes from another well-referenced supporter of the importance of Company Values, in Tony Hsieh’s, Zappos. It’s well-referenced because they’re in the “Yeah!” category, not the “Meh.” list. Their “Committable Values”, which meant they used them to, amongst other things, hire and fire employees, regardless of performance, is full of personality and distinctiveness, whilst still covering some big themes.
Take for example my pet hate of “Fun.” Saying you’re a “fun organisation”, is a bit like having someone say to you that they “have a high degree of emotional intelligence.” If they’re having to say that to you, then chances are they don’t or aren’t fun in this case. As always, we’ll be the judge of the output, but it’s the input that’s important.
In this case Zappos used,
“Create fun and a little weirdness.”
They aren’t necessarily looking to hire a whole bunch of creepy sociopaths, but what this is trying to do is show that the organisation recognises and celebrates the uniqueness of the individual in making the company what it is. They also recognise that not being yourself at work, leads to greater work-life separation and balance issues. For them, encouraging people to be themselves makes for a better, more fun and stickier place to work.
Being relevant to what you actually do and how you want to do it, is really important. It’s a futile exercise to come up with a value that doesn’t really connect to what you do. If it’s not rooted in reality, will it ever really happen? That doesn’t mean it can’t be inspiring or motivating, after all, they should link to the delivery of the company’s bigger Vision and Purpose, which should be both those things at least. But if you don’t have a chance to live it every day in what you do, it’ll never take root. A key question to have in the front of your mind when deciding on your values is “Would we really hire, and fire based on these values?” As we’ll discuss in Parts 2 and 3, the commitment you show to your values, in the actions you take, will ultimately determine how successful you’ll be in embedding them.
I’d also add that there is no perfect number of values that you should have. Some people will say you should have no more than 3. Others say 5. Some say more. Me? I don’t think the number matters. It’s the content that counts, and often people say have no more than 3 or 5 because
“People will find it hard to remember them, otherwise.”
Really? That's your reason for having the number of values you have? In this case, you are missing the point. The more relevant they are, the more you use them every day, the more you discuss them, the less it becomes about having to "remember" what they are because they quickly become part of how you do, what you do.
So concentrate on building a set of values that are really going to mean something and help you get to where you’re going. If that means you stop at 4, because 4 does the job, don’t try and cro-bar in an extra one to make a neat 5. Equally, if the list is growing, just make sure that you keep the ones that are really going to help you deliver your vision and plan and that connect with your employees.
As a marketer in a previous life, I always felt finding the emotional connection to what you do or sell for a customer, is the key to making them act. Now, why shouldn’t the same be true for how you communicate with your employees? The words you use in your core values are important and you should give as much care and attention to these, as you would for any customer-facing messaging hoping to translate into positive action.
So, if you have a carefully worded set of values, that is both relevant to what you do and who you are and distinguishes you from others, you’ve successfully made it to the start line. To make it to “Yeah!” is going to take further commitment and trust. In Part 2 we’ll cover what it takes to successfully transfer ownership of these core values to your employees.