How to stick to your guns in business

Whether you are just starting out in your own business or the CEO of a large organisation, at some stage you’ll need to create or revise mission, vision, and value statements as part of your role.

That’s not as easy as it seems. Many businesses have clearly defined mission and vision statements but the value statements can be a bit vague.

Let’s face it, words like ‘team-focused’, ‘inclusive’, and ‘innovative’ get bandied around a lot. They may sound good, but do they really mean anything?

Often, they are added to a strategic plan because common practice says these sections need to be filled with positive catch-terms that will make everyone applaud when they are announced. However, many bosses fail to match their values statement with what actually happens in their organisation in real life. How can a company be truly ‘inclusive’ when most of their executives are older, white men, for example?

So, what can you do to ensure the wording of your values statement accurately reflects your desired values?

Read on to find out more.

Types of values

In the Harvard Business Review article, Make Your Values Mean Something, Patrick Lencioni outlines the different types of business values and the role they play in a values statement. He points out that the term ‘values’ itself means different things to different people, so it’s important to clarify that before adding more confusing terminology.

Lencioni believes that values can be split into 4 categories: core, aspirational, permission-to-play, and accidental values.

  • Core values: These are the principles used to guide every company decision. They represent the companies point of different from their opposition and should never be compromised. However, they can be reviewed periodically to ensure they are still relevant. Lencioni states:
  • “55% of all Fortune 100 companies claim integrity is a core value, 49% espouse customer satisfaction, and 40% tout team-work. While these are inarguably good qualities, such terms hardly provide a distinct blueprint for employee behavior. Cookie-cutter values don’t set a company apart from competitors; they make it fade into the crowd.”
  • Aspirational values: These are values the company would like to have to help them succeed, but they don’t currently exist. They might include attitudes within the company culture, such as work ethics, for example.
  • Permission-to-play values: Lencioni says these “Simply reflect the minimum behavioural and social standards required of any employee”. As most organisations hold similar behavioural standards, these can’t be used as core values.
  • Accidental values: These values develop organically and are not specifically developed for a values statement. Often, they reflect the culture and demographic of the people within the organisation, such as their age, social status or belief systems. Lencioni points out that these can be good or bad for the company so it is important to be aware of them.

Getting started with value statements

If you are just starting your business or creating your organisation’s first values statement, you have a golden opportunity to get it right from the start – so don’t waste it! You get to set the ball rolling from your very first transaction.

Even if you are updating existing statements, you still have the power to make changes that will have a significant effect on your company’s future success.

Spend time working out what values and ethical standards are relevant to your business and see how they fit into the above categories. Hand-pick a team to help you, if that’s appropriate but don’t get caught asking for everyone’s opinion as you’ll never reach a workable consensus.

It doesn’t matter if this process takes months. What does matter is that the end result is something that you, and those around you, can use to guide all decisions for years to come. The values have to mean something to all of you as well as your customers, suppliers, and all other stakeholders.

Remember that your values are as much about as what you don’t want to happen as what you do want to happen. For example, not using suppliers whose values conflict with your own or avoiding environmentally-harmful production methods.

Stick to your values at all times

Sometimes, when you stick to your core values or principles, you end up going against the flow and may even be seen as crazy, but if they are sound, they’ll pay off in the end.

When Michael Gill was the CEO of the Australian Financial Review, he oversaw the organisation's online operations as they first developed in the 1990’s. At that time, there was no way to predict how readers would respond to their new platform, let alone how the internet would become such an integral part of our lives. That meant that Michael and his colleagues in other financial newspapers were relying on instincts and theories to guide their actions.

While many of the AFR’s competitors chose to offer all their online content for free (and some even set up their platforms so they received commission from investments they ‘suggested’ their readers make), Michael and his team decided that they would charge their readers for access to the paper’s online content, just as they have always charged for the printed newspaper. They believed that people would pay for content they valued, so it was their job to ensure they provided exceptional content.

This approach met with outrage and ridicule from almost all quarters, including the other departments within the organisation. However, as Michael’s team all fully understood the reasoning behind the approach and believed deeply in it, they stood firm.

Since then, their approach has proven to be so successful that it has been adopted as standard practice by newspapers across the world.

One final tip.

Don’t go against the flow for the sake of it. Sometimes it makes sense to follow the masses, such as when new technology proves to save time and money or when the economy shows some ominous warning signs. After all, animals know when to run from disaster. They don’t turn and try to fight it. Learn to trust your own instincts and be prepared to change your approach whenever necessary.

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Michael Gill is a counsellor with Dragoman, an international advisory firm. He is chairman of Newbe Global, a digital media venture, and of Sustainable Skills Ltd, which advises governments on vocational education systems. From 1998 to 2011 he was CEO and editor in chief of the Financial Review Group and was chairman of AAP Ltd.

To learn more about Michael’s journey and hear his tips for success, make the time to listen to his fascinating podcast interview on The Mentor List. He’ll inspire you to stand up for what you believe in wherever you are and whatever you do.

If you liked this article, you might also like these:

How faith in your goals drives success

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