Why values matter most

Businesses that put values at the heart of their operations are those most likely to succeed.

Mahatma Gandhi once said: ‘Your values become your destiny.’ He definitely did not say ‘your values are what you want your customers to think you stand for’, nor ‘values are what you wish your stakeholders would believe’. Neither did he say ‘values are how you mask the fact that you are not performing as well as your competitors’.

I am being flippant here, but there is a serious message. Simply defining something as a ‘value’ does not automatically ascribe it any real value.

Good comms can do a great job of articulating values, but certainly is no substitute for not having any. If we dare to follow the Gandhi train of thought a bit further into the corporate world – a business that has no values simply is not going anywhere.

I started considering this topic after reading a recent interview with Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King in The Sunday Telegraph, in which he talked about the Paralympics in these terms: ‘At no point in any debate about whether we sponsor the Paralympics or not did we ever discuss the maths… we want to be the destination of choice for grocery shopping for customers with a disability.’ He added: ‘We believe our values make us different… Most of the values-based decisions you make are decisions that a straightforward P&L would not get you to.’

Without doubt, firms that articulate their values effectively know where they are going next – and have a compelling story to tell about it too. When the values are right, the story flows. In the case of Sainsbury’s, the customers and the profits follow. It is a powerful equation for any leader to consider.

But, of course, actions speak louder than words and perhaps there was no better proof in action than the firm’s emergence (rightly) unscathed from the horsemeat crisis. King added: ‘That [the decision to do DNA testing] was very values driven. That is why values always serve you well in the long term… because broadly they guide you to making decisions that other people can’t, and won’t, make.’ Enough said.

In the very same week, I noticed Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent, talking about the work of his organisation, JamJar Investments. Innocent’s birth story is no secret, but a powerful legacy for the brand is being created now by its founders by taking those original values of entrepreneurialism – risking something for what you truly believe in – to a new generation. 

Values, it seems, when truly essential, can withstand the magnetic pull even of the corporate giant. Reed said: ‘As of this year, we are 90 per cent owned by Coca-Cola – but we are run completely independently, by a totally homegrown Innocent team. The deal has allowed us to do more of what we set out to do...  and we have given more money to charity and delivered against our social and environmental goals.’

To unlock the true values, an organisation must dig a bit deeper and und-erstand what it truly stands for at its very core. If values are not authentic, then audiences and stakeholders will know they are simply being sold a line.

So is there an opportunity to sharpen those values you are communicating and ensure they reflect the very heart of the business?  Here are five thoughts on refreshing your thinking:

  1. Turn to your people – the chances are the values they hold dear will have rubbed off on the business and vice versa.
  2. What really matters – understand not just the bottom line, but the values  that matter most to your customers.
  3. Old-fashioned values – honesty and integrity go a great deal further than long words and empty promises.
  4. Be authentic – if you are not talking about the fundamentals that govern every thought and action of the business, you are not talking about values.
  5. Where you started – back to Gandhi: if values become destiny, then what got you started in the first place could light the way to where you are headed.

Helen Searle is a director of corporate at Cohn & Wolfe

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