Corporate values that make a difference

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Corporate value statements — it seems as though every company has them these days, but far fewer know how to make their values operational or applicable to everyday situations. Values are the principles and boundaries that define corporate and personal behavior. Our values determine how we make decisions and how we relate to one another. Whether they are articulated and written out, or subconscious and subtle, values generally exist and influence our behavior. The primary issue is whether our values are intentional or accidental.

So how do we as leaders develop values that are intentional and actually drive the kind of behavior and culture we want in the workplace? How can we develop and apply values that make a difference? Here are several suggestions that I have applied successfully in several companies.

Begin by defining your own personal values. As the leader, your own values serve as the foundation for developing the larger set of company values and must eventually align with the corporate values.

Develop a preliminary list of corporate values based on observation. Over a period of 6-12 months, encourage employees to look for values in operation. Values are not statements of what you hope will be, but descriptions of the principles that are already in operation within the company. As you and other employees make note of values you observe in practice, you are building a preliminary list that will be more pragmatic than any hypothetical list of values written at a corporate retreat.

Combine your own values with the corporately observed values to develop your final list. Write out each value as succinctly as possible in order to help employees remember them.

Communicate your values often and with plenty of real-life examples. People will remember the corporate values better if they are illustrated with stories from their own experience. Talk about your values at employee meetings and take advantage of opportunities to praise employees who demonstrate a value in practice.

Remind employees of your values whenever discussing a relational or decision-making issue. The best time to highlight the appropriate application of a value is during a specific situation where a value has either been directly applied or violated. Many conflicts among people are rooted in a value that has been violated, so use these opportunities to point out how your corporate values were or were not violated and if properly applied, could have averted the conflict.

Review your corporate values with new employees as early as possible. As the CEO of a medium-sized company, I tried to personally meet with every new employee at least within the first two weeks of their employment. One of the discussions I had was to review our values and draw attention to them with stories from our own rank-and-file. Over time our values became a part of our corporate lore and reputation, both inside and out.

Annually evaluate how effective your values are applied. At your next corporate retreat or annual review, involve all of the employees in a discussion concerning how each value was put into practice over the past year. Identify those values that were not consistently put into practice and discuss as a group ways they could be more effectively applied in the future.

Wilson is an executive coach with Vistage International and the Nonprofit Leadership Exchange in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at kent.wilson@vistage.com.