Getting value from your values

Today’s work-life balancing, team building days and “values based methodology” love-ins are a far cry from the (mainly male) boozy retreats of the 80s and the high testosterone boot camps of the 90s.

Back then, the main outcomes were liver disease and pulled hamstrings, rather than meaningful charters and mission statements.

Twenty years later, in the shadow of #climatechange, #stoptheboats and #metoo, it’s hard to find a corporation or government department on the planet without a set of company values – arrived at after hours and days and weeks of introspection.

Do organisations really get any value from their values?

Value statements are likely to include earnest sentiments such as integrity, honesty, diversity, boldness, trust, transparency, accountability, commitment, passion, leadership, innovation, quality…even fun.

But the question is – after the team building process concludes, when the white boards and blocks of multi-colour sticky notes and rolls of butchers paper are all packed away and everyone is sipping kombucha in post-workshop bliss – do organisations really get any value from their values?

How many employees really remember their company values after they were presented with them in their orientation? How many employers ensure that these values are present in their day to dealings with their staff? How many companies really “live” these grand intentions when they are dealing with internal and external customers?

Let’s think about the biggest corporations.

Coke does embody some of its values – “being real” and “leveraging collective genius” – but does it effectively live up to its mission of “shaping a better future”?

Facebook’s values include “focussing on impact”, “moving fast”, “being bold”, “being open” and “building real value for the world”. But do these values also include accountability, integrity and compassion?

As a Mac lover of more than 25 years, I am drawn to Apple’s Think Different vision and some of its core values: “We believe that we’re on the face of the Earth to make great products. We believe in the simple, not the complex.”

But cynics would say there is no mention of contributing to environmental sustainability and paying fair wages to numb-fingered iPhone assemblers in developing countries.

Authenticity – doing what you say you’ll do – and living your values is the acid test for every modern company that wants to engage its millennial staff.

As professional communicators, we are often commissioned by companies or government departments to assist with the development and implementation of an internal communication strategy.

It is usually a response to a period of rapid change (pretty much anytime in the last 30 years) when a merger, acquisition or shuffle of government has led to staff cuts, changes in roles and responsibilities and an expectation of people doing more, with less.

The common goal is to build a new high-performance culture based on team spirit.

Developing a high-performance, values-based culture

Business coach Marcus Buckingham says in his recent book “Nine Lies About Work” (Harvard Business Review Press) that there are eight engagement experiences that staff talk about in high performance teams.

“We” Experiences

  • I am really enthusiastic about the mission of my company.
  • In my team, I am surrounded by people who share my values.
  • My teammates have my back.
  • I have great confidence in my company’s future.

“Me” Experiences

  • At work, I clearly understand what is expected of me.
  • I have the chance to use my strengths every day at work.
  • I know I will be recognized for excellent work.
  • In my work, I am always challenged to grow.

But if employees are not reminded about the mission of the company, about shared values and expectations, how are they expected to be recognised for excellent work?

We find that the key messages to staff are right under everyone’s nose – the values statement that is languishing in a company manual.

Our job is to develop and implement a strategy that makes these values really fly through authentic communication to staff and customers.

But for it to be truly authentic, it must come from the top, which is why we start with CEOs, the cultural Brownlow Medallists of a business.

Communicating your values

When CEOs are focused entirely on reporting to the board and shareholders and not their staff, the high performance engine runs out of fuel. But when effective CEOs engage their staff about where the company is going and how it is tracking, the culture lifts and so does customer service, team spirit and funnily enough, profitability.

Company CEOs and their executive staff spend a lot of time planning for and delivering their shareholder annual report. But how many companies have an employee annual reporting day when values and expectations are revisited and cultural performance indicators benchmarked? Never underestimate the power of physical connection between the most successful and most aspirational people in an organisation.

Face to face is foundational, but for internal communication strategies to really work they need to use multiple channels, as we know not everyone takes on information in the same way.

The standard engagement tool these days is the ubiquitous EDM (electronic direct mail) newsletter powered by MailChimp or Campaign Monitor.

But instead of kilometres of text that only the author will read, try sub-headlines with a single paragraph “teaser” followed by a link to the longer story on your intranet.

Ensure that for reluctant readers, there is an infographic with big numbers, a “spot the face” team photograph, or best of all, a short embedded video.

Sixty seconds is usually enough if it is a fireside chat from the boss, but a dramatic fly-through of a new facility or an interview with some of your highest performing leaders can run to 120 seconds.

Podcasts are a rapidly evolving channel for staff who spend lots of time traveling – but if you expect someone to plug in their AirPods and switch from Spotify on the flight from Port Hedland to Perth, you’ll have to make it worthwhile.

Discussions about career advancement and skill development (with embedded mentions of values) will probably hit the mark before a technical specification treatise.

Frequency is the other key to good communication.

There is no point distributing internal EDMs unless they land on desktops and phones at least monthly, to ensure the information is current and topical.

However, for high engagement we recommend weekly distributions, ideally on a Friday afternoon when there is generally time to read and absorb. A weekly shout-out to a staff member or team along with the standard gimmicks such as footy tipping results and competition prizes will guarantee a high opening rate.

A weekly newsletter, videos, infographics, podcasts – that’s a lot of work I hear you say.

Yes, cultural communication does require discipline, commitment, and an investment of time, energy and often money.

But in this contemporary world where there is heightened sensitivity to discrimination and a raft of millennials that quite rightly thrive on recognition, there really is no alternative.

It all gets back to what value do you put on communicating your values?