Company values are in vogue. Firms like Zappos lead the charge, with very public declarations of their values, and many follow in their stead. Sadly, many of the followers have executed poorly, resulting in cargo cult value statements, naive aspirations, or pure hot air that give the entire concept of company values a bad name. Despite this, company values remain incredibly useful if three important conditions are met:
- Each value can inform real business decisions.
- Each value represents a purposeful choice.
- The values are communicated clearly and effectively.
A great value can shape business decisions, large and small. It's easy to imagine how Rent The Runway 's declaration that "Everyone deserves a Cinderella experience" could influence the product mix, the prices, and the desired customer experience. This combination of actionability and adaptability makes it powerful, strong, and (yes) valuable.
A strong value represents a purposeful choice. John W. Nordstrom chose to prioritize customer service, and Yvon Chouinard chose to prioritize avoiding harm to people and the environment. These are great values because different, reasonably-run business could choose differently, and those differences are reflected in nearly every aspect of their respective businesses.
Finally, powerful values must be clear, concise, and communicated effectively. Tony Hsieh did a wonderful job of this at Zappos, where he used 47 words to express ten meaningful values. He then backed those words up with anecdotes about what each of those values means, filled the office with powerful iconography, and communicated these ideas over and over, until they spilled out past the Zappos headquarters and became conversation points in other companies that were looking to understand his success.
I know it's easy to be cynical on corporate values after reading the messy mix of truisms, vagaries, and goals that are associated with bad values, but great corporate values are powerful tools that create shared language and understanding which empowers team members, while effectively shaping and scaling culture.