I don’t mean to be unkind, but sadly, it’s true in many cases. A lot of core values stink. Many well-intentioned folks–executives, managers, consultants, and so on–craft core values that end up being almost entirely meaningless if you accept that core values are supposed to be your organization’s DNA. Folks rightly understand that your values undergird your culture, and I think most know on at least some level (even if they don’t want to admit it) that an organization’s culture is a potentially huge–and often untapped–competitive advantage. However…
If you glance at many organizations’ lists of core values, you’ll find things that sound great at first blush. Things like honesty, integrity, respect–those things are all fine and good, but they really don’t speak to what makes your organization different from every other one in your market. I mean really, have you ever seen a financial institution not list those as their values? Yeah, me either. So unless of course you’re suggesting that your organization is more honest, has more integrity, and is more respectful than everyone else (which would be pretty arrogant, right?), you should be looking at your values differently. Think about it–most of us just generally assume that most organizations are honest, aim to conduct business with integrity, and are respectful of, well, whatever it is that organizations are respectful of. So for you to list those as your core, defining values is almost redundant and unnecessary. Those are attributes that we expect most businesses to have; they don’t really make you unique.
Keep thinking. What if we took your core values or your marketing pieces and put them on a piece of paper without colors, identifiable fonts, logos, or anything else. If people read them, would they know it was you? Would your employees even know it was you? Many times, the answer is no. And again–it’s not that those values themselves are bad; they’re just not unique. They’re not you.
What about these? Warrior’s Spirit. A Servant’s Heart. A Fun-LUVing Attitude. Those, of course, are from Southwest Airlines. Now underneath each of those values, there are specific behaviors outlined. By the time you’ve read through them, you have a pretty good idea of who they are and how they roll. Are you stoic and serious-minded? Then Southwest’s not for you, and that’s OK! Core values aren’t moral judgements; they simply speak to what defines the culture of that group of humans.
And please–don’t misread this and think I’m saying everyone needs to be like Southwest or any other organization. That’s not what I think, and I’ve said as much in previous posts. You need to be YOU, warts and all. We don’t need another Zappos. We don’t need another Apple. We don’t need another Five Guys. They’re all great organizations, and we can admire what they’ve done from a culture and branding perspective. But what makes them great is that they’re them. They’re unique and unflinching in regards to their culture and brand.
Your core values should give your employees a sort of behavioral compass, and should give the outside world an idea of who you really are as an organization. It’s essentially your brand. Great organizations find ways to really blur the line between internal organizational culture and external brand, and that’s how it should be. An organization’s brand ought to be simply one face of its culture. But frankly, that’s not possible with those almost default, expected values. You being honest and respectful is great; but it’s also not at all unique. We would all nod and say that those things are sort of standard operating procedures, sure. But they don’t really define your organization in a unique way to your employees or the broader public.
So dig deep. Figure out who you really are. And then be you.