Whenever I work with a leadership team on their values, I have to constantly repeat the same thing: “Remember, this is not about marketing.” I have to remind them, because it’s so easy to slip into marketing mode when we’re thinking about values, wondering what customers and outsiders will think about the words we choose. I suppose this happens because many executives have misused the concept of values to try to shape their public image rather than to guide their company's behavior. I’m reminded of Enron listing ‘integrity’ as one of their top values. Of course, this is a recipe for cultural disaster. When leaders of an organization see their values as part of a public relations campaign, they usually end up with customers, vendors and, most important of all, employees who feel disappointed and misled.
The key to avoiding this is to think about values as something entirely separate from marketing, PR or advertising. I like to tell executives that it is entirely possible, even preferable, that their values will never make it onto a website, annual report or T-shirt. For that matter, even if the executives never communicated the values explicitly to employees (something I don’t recommend), but merely lived them and adhered to them in the way they ran the company, they would be far ahead of the average company when it comes to culture.
The best way to avoid the marketing conundrum is for leaders to focus first on concepts rather than words. In other words, agree on the basic ideas behind the culture and values of a company, and leave the wordsmithing for another day. If a group of leaders can get fundamentally aligned around the basic principles that they believe are inherent in the organization, they’ve done most of their job.
Of course, those concepts need to be rooted in truth. As Jim Collins and Jerry Porras taught us in their book Built To Last, values must reflect reality, not aspiration. People want, expect and deserve reality. So leave your marketing skills and tendencies at the door when it comes time to decide on the values that you will build your organization around. And resist the tendency to turn those values into a T-shirt, a poster or a page on your website.