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Marcus Mitchell
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Making values work

Defining and selecting values for a business often feels like a game of corporate ‘bingo’ with words being pulled out of a hat. Even when a leadership team brings that mindset to a meeting or workshop we have always found in any sector within minutes everyone switches to a deeper conversation.

Why? The tipping point is talking and thinking about values as a means to set culture, define standards and communicate expectations to employees and stakeholders, rather than approaching values as a wordsmithing exercise.

SampsonMay conducted a survey of FTSE 100 values in 2020 to benchmark and assess good practice in values. A quick review of values across the FTSE 100 can look like a bingo score card with, for example, 34 Integrities, 17 Respects and 16 Excellences.

While there are many expressions that boil down to ideas for values you would expect, like integrity or innovation our analysis identified a wide variety of over 100 different themes in the 399 values we found that go beyond simple variations in wording. This included a number of unique, one-off values such as 'boundarylessness', 'embrace the adventure' and 'create legacy'.

What are values?

The idea of a person or a nation having values is well understood, making up an important part of an individual's or community's identity. While the idea of values translates naturally to businesses, in order to start assessing what they are or should be, a definition of what business values are is useful.

We define values as 'a set of beliefs that are important to a business'. These beliefs can work in different ways and different levels in an organisation, as standards, as behaviours or as a framework for culture.

About 80% of values in the FTSE 100 are called Values or Core Values, but other terms are used, such as: Principles, Shared Beliefs and DNA. Three of the FTSE 100 go further and brand their values: The Burberry Behaviours, The Experian Way and The Rightmove Hows.

Why define and promote your values?

Most management experts and leaders put the importance of managing culture on a par with managing strategy and operations. As one of the original management gurus, Peter Drucker, put it: "culture eats strategy for breakfast". Whether or not it has been defined and recorded somewhere, any business, indeed any organisation, has its own culture or set of cultures – a shared system of standards, norms and symbols that guide appropriate attitudes and behaviours.

So any business has values whether or not they're written down, they are part of the culture. Defining what they are or should be is powerful, because it gives a business a way to talk about, control and influence culture. Values can be a great way of setting a direction for culture and engineering cultural change. However, they are only a framework or tools for managing culture, they are never the whole answer.

Externally values can signal a focus on a range of corporate standards or priorities in health and safety, anti-bribery, diversity, compliance and ESG (environmental, social and governance). Across the FTSE 100 values, these types of values make up a good proportion but don't dominate.

When we analysed the FTSE 100 values thematically the top ten themes were split between 'standards', 'operational' and 'cultural' themes. While 'standards' themed values are the most frequent and common across the FTSE 100, operationally and culturally themed ones, where there is more latitude for distinctiveness, are also frequent. But as they can be more distinctive they inevitably don't get as high into the top ten.

Top ten values themes

'Standards' themes

  • Integrity (34)
  • Respect (17)
  • Safety (16)
  • Care (14)

'Operational' themes

  • Excellence (16)
  • Innovation (14)
  • Customer, e.g. -focused, -first (13)
  • Simplicity (10)

'Cultural' themes

  • Collaboration (10)
  • Teamwork (8)

Source: SampsonMay analysis, top ten values themes in FTSE 100 ranked by frequency, March 2020.

Standards values tend to sound more generic, but have an important role in setting a foundation of beliefs or principles, but should never work in isolation. None of the sets of values in the FTSE 100 are made up of standards values alone. Including distinctive strategy and culture values gives corporate reputations greater stand-out, builds employee engagement and is an important part of employer value propositions – especially in recruitment, helping to answer the 'what's it like to work there?' question.

What is good practice?

Ninety of the FTSE 100 have a set of stated values, or equivalents like principles, in the public domain. Of the ten that don't three are corporates with portfolios of businesses and brands that do have values, although we didn't include these in our survey.

On average the number of values is just under 4.5. The size of all but three of the families of values is in the range of three to eight. Only two have two values and one has ten.

We always recommend having more than two values and aiming for less than six. Two values lack richness and depth, and the flexibility to make the family of values effective for employee engagement across the different areas of an organisation, e.g. from frontline to back-office support functions.

At the other end of the range avoid having too many to 'choose' from. Families of values over six or seven are difficult to communicate as a distinctive whole and establish as a common reference point for employees.

Source: SampsonMay analysis, FTSE 100 values themes that occur more than once, March 2020.

More than keywords

The traditional, single word format for a value is very popular with 44 of the FTSE 100 using it. For all bar one company, they are accompanied by descriptions or explanation, which vary from a simple sentence to sets of bullet points and videos.

Single words, even if they are just the hook, do not create a good impression. However, thought-through and authentic they can look like the result of a game of corporate bingo. This is more than superficial, it can create a barrier to employee engagement and take-up of values. We have found working with managers and employees around the world single words make values seem abstract, remote, 'corporate', 'from head office' and harder to relate to.

On the other hand, almost a third (27) of the FTSE 100 use what we call 'action phrases', a short set of words that describes or suggests a behaviour. The tone and style vary enormously from still very corporate to almost zen-like, for example:

  • Acting with integrity.
  • Be challenging.
  • Does it make the boat go faster?

Using language like this sets up an expectation about how an organisation will behave and what it expects from its employees. Values as action phrases aren't perfect, but they start to make a connection with day-to-day behaviours and build a more genuine and distinct picture of a business for stakeholders and employees.

Avoid camels and acronyms

Agreeing the wording of values is difficult. Start by building consensus about the underlying idea, then craft the wording of the phrase to encapsulate the idea and make it behavioural. In multi-national businesses, richness of language needs to be weighed against clarity that will work across national cultures and languages.

However, with apologies to camel fans, avoid values that become 'camels' (horses designed by committee) by cramming in too many elements. For example, we found a single value that combined: ideas of fun, winning and trust; and another that combined: doing the right thing, passion, pace and precision.

Be pragmatic

'Be pragmatic' is not a FTSE 100 value, but is a principle we always apply to working with values. Make values and communications tangible so they are practical reference points for employees, and not just seen as corporate shibboleths by stakeholders.

Beyond language and communications that make values practical to use and reference day-to-day across a business, consider how they are going to be lived and seen to be lived. For example: ask what leaders and the business will do differently to demonstrate the importance of the values, and help leaders and managers model the values and key behaviours in their work and interactions. By creating a shared language and set of expectations around them, values can become powerful shorthands that connect leadership with the frontline and every part of a business.

Finally, 'keep it simple' aim for less than six values. Having to narrow down to a small set forces a leadership team to debate what is really important to the business and arrive at a distinctive, authentic set, rather than a wish list.

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