How Clearly Defined Business Values Help You Succeed

By Tim Sternberg
8 Min Read

In my previous post in this series we explored the importance of defining your business’s Purpose as an early part of your strategic planning process – “why” your business exists and “what” it will do.  But that’s not enough – all businesses also need to have a “how” and “who”, which are closely linked to the behaviours of its people.  And when we talk about human behaviours, we need to also talk about values. 

When my wife was setting up her own business, we had a long discussion about the importance of business values to her and her community.  It seems like a luxury for a small business to focus on, especially when it’s just you to start with ! However, the late Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, one of the most admired start ups of the past 20 years, actually considers values the most important aspect of starting any business: 


“If I could go back and do Zappos all over again I would actually come up with our values from day one.  We actually didn’t always have values. It wasn’t until about five years into it that we rolled out our values.”


Zappos now hire, manage and fire all of their employees based on their values.  Zappos grew exponentially, doubling in revenue each year for a three year period leading up to 2009.  In that same year, they had moved up the rankings to 10th on Fortune magazine’s list of “100 Best Companies to Work For“.

Here are Zappos’s Core Values:

  1. Deliver WOW Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

For Zappos and businesses like them, strategies, processes and plans may change, but their values remain the same – and touch everything that they do.  I recommend that you take the same approach, by consciously choosing your business values and then actively using them like any other business asset.


Defining Your Business Values

If you are starting from scratch or need to refine your existing values, there are a few essential considerations: 

  1. Your Business Purpose: you can only think about the behaviours you want to promote if you know what they are designed to achieve.
  2. You: take a few steps back and think hard about your own personal values; you won’t succeed as a leader if your personal and business values are in conflict.
  3. Your Team: involve your people in the process, so that you can both empower them to give discretionary effort, and also benefit from diverse points of view.
  4. Your Community: consider who your targeted customers and key suppliers are, and what motivates them; ideally there will be high alignment in your values, so that you are more likely to build trust relationships that transcend transactional and price-driven dealings.
  5. Your Business Ethics: don’t be afraid of explicitly incorporating ethical considerations into your values; after all, all values are founded on concepts of “right vs wrong”.
  6. Your Messaging: the wording of your values needs to be positive, memorable and engaging for those working with and for you.


Using Business Values to Engage and Align

It’s not good enough to have good values – they have to be put to work.  When you hire the right people for your business and they live and breathe well defined values, you will create a high performance culture, where people both care highly (they are engaged) and do the right work (they are aligned).  This is the ultimate cultural goal of any business with staff and it can be very challenging to achieve and easy to lose if not managed successfully.

Use your business values to drive engagement and alignment within your business by:

  1. People: ensuring that your people, especially your leaders, are positively engaged with and act consistently your business’s values, through day to day interactions.
  2. Hiring and Onboarding: communicating your business values throughout both  processes and testing for alignment through interviews and possibly psychometric testing.
  3. Appraisals: incorporating value / behaviour alignment checks and assessments into regular staff appraisals.
  4. Recognition: highlighting and even rewarding stellar examples of “living the values”.
  5. Call Outs: encouraging the appropriate challenging of behaviours that are at odds with your business values, as a reminder to do better rather than as punishment.

Firing: being prepared to let people go if they consistently work against the values of your business (following good employment law practice at all times).


“Catch My Disease !”

Well lived, fit for purpose values will spread quickly within your business, and transfer organically to your people’s dealings with the outside world – it is an absolute joy hearing stories from customers and suppliers about how your people are terrific ambassadors for your business.


Difficult Decisions

Unfortunately behaviours that are at odds with your business’s values will quickly have a negative impact on your business culture, and will have to be dealt with quickly, which can sometimes cause short term pain.

For example, I was appointed as interim GM of a business that required a turnaround in performance. One of its “star” sales managers had brought in a huge amount of deals to the business every year for the past three years.  However, they were not living the values and the behaviour was negatively affecting everyone else in the business. After two performance management conversations, the employee left the business. This was a difficult decision in the short term in terms of lost revenue, but a powerful message to the wider team, which rallied so the business became a market leader within 12 months. 

If you would like to learn more about this case study or our Advisory Services, please connect with us

Tim Sternberg

Tim Sternberg

Tim is an expert in sales, marketing, recruitment and leadership with a particular flair for helping his SME...

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