Many firms don’t formally define values until an agency tells them during a branding initiative that it is important to articulate “brand values.”
Of course, all agencies have some methodology to facilitate brand values discussions and build consensus (See Mistake No. 6 Making brand decisions by committee). I have sat through many of these meetings. They are fun, creative, and great opportunities to get to know others around the firm. Just don’t expect them to produce anything meaningful and be prepared for the cynicism that follows. Here is why and how the Values List mistake gets made.
The brand values list development process normally follows 5 simple steps.
1. Survey all employees or get groups of people together to generate a list of important values.
2. Prioritize the list through popular vote.
3. Wordsmith the top values in committee.
4. Define the meaning of each value in committee.
5. Convert the values and definitions into posters, screensavers and lists on the About Us and Career sections of the firm’s website.
Voila! The process is complete and the firm has established the principles that guide internal conduct and the firm’s relationship with the external world.
Not so fast. Let’s test the process.
After a quarter or two, walk up to a couple of cubicles and ask employees to name all your values and tell you what each means. I’ll bet a dollar to a donut that the people will struggle to name more than one or two. They will stammer, stutter and look around the room for a poster. Perhaps they will turn red because they think they should know them but don’t. Why? The answer is quite straightforward. The values listed aren’t really values at all. They were just a list of well-intentioned, aspirational, feel-good words. Kinda like good seeds falling into the thin soil as they say.
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Here are just a few of the reasons why the brand values list process ALWAYS fails:
1. The list is too long to be memorable.
2. The values are “sanitized” of any objectionable language (most of the great, meaningful words are objectionable to someone just as they should be because strong brands attract AND repel).
3. The list includes mundane words like: quality, excellence, collaborative, trustworthy, responsive, client-centric, etc. that don’t demand anything beyond normal professional behaviors demonstrated by emotionally intelligent adults.
4. Finally, real values don’t require a superfluous definitions. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart speaking about pornography, you know a value when you see it.
Real values are not created in facilitated groups. Founders and leaders establish them. They are ingrained into the culture. They reflect the behaviors that get you promoted and fired. People who see a value like “Collaborative” on a poster, but operate in an environment where employees hoard information and wall off client relationships, see the gimmick. Cultures can be irreparably damaged by pontificating aspirational values while rewards, processes, and leaders’ behaviors support the opposite.
According to Gallup, highly engaged organizations share common philosophies and practices. Among other things:
- They know creating a culture of engagement starts at the top.
- Their leaders are aligned with prioritizing engagement as a competitive, strategic point of differentiation.
- They communicate openly and consistently.
- They place the utmost importance on using the right metrics and on hiring and developing great managers.
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The end we live for shapes our lives and our firms.
Mistake No. 4, Confusing brand and culture is at the heart of the Values List mistake. Leaders, as stewards of the firm’s legacy, should know and demonstrate the firm’s values. The values should be supported by the firm’s reward system and HR should be recruiting talent based on them (see Mistake No. 5: Being unclear on the purpose of a brand). Vision, mission, and values are innate in firms with history or a founder still at the helm. There should be no reason to have to make them up and build consensus on them.
Prudence is the habit of making the right decision, at the right time, for the right reason. It is easy to judge what is “good” and what is “bad.” Prudence judges what is “best.” Prudence requires us to choose a path greater than individual ambition and bottom-line profit. Prudence has nothing to do with playing it safe—quite the contrary. Prudence often demands that we make bolder choices than conventional wisdom and today’s business mindsets might lead us to take.
Prudent firms are led by prudent partners—not by lists.
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