Values are only values if you live by them

 About a year ago, we Tweeted this quote: “Wrap your business around your values” by Lori Deschene @tinybuddha

It ended up being Retweeted more than anything else we’ve ever posted. It clearly struck a chord with many entrepreneurs (read more about Deschene in her IdeaMensch interview or visit Tiny Buddha).

Values may be what drive people to start their own business more than anything else. Working for a big corporation or government offers little to no control over what values are defined or practiced. How often have we felt let down by leaders who fail to live up to the values they espouse?

At the same time, the “values gap” doesn’t happen only in big bureaucracies. The gap occurs when we aspire to certain values but actually practice something else. Anyone can fall into the gap, including small businesses, individuals and families. In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown says the gap is dangerous because it creates a “disengagement divide.” It causes businesses to lose employees and clients, schools to lose students and teachers, faith communities to lose congregations and families to lose kids (parenting tip: when your teenager points out your hypocrisy — listen).

So how do we prevent this disconnect in our own business? How do we stay true to our values?

Choose values before planning
In StratPad, we recommend identifying (or reviewing) your values before creating your strategy and business plan. Values are what you stand for or believe in; strategies and plans may change but values are fixed. They will guide all your company’s decisions and actions, so choose them carefully. For example, if you choose “honesty” or “transparency,” are you prepared to admit when you make a mistake?

Values are only values if you’re prepared to stick with them through thick and thin. Values make us vulnerable because they expose us to being held accountable. They also make us strong because they demand the courage to follow them through.

Be intentional
If you’re not intentional in choosing your values, you may end up with values you don’t want. For example, say you have a restaurant but you haven’t made consistency a value. Food quality varies, depending on who’s cooking or what ingredients they use. It won’t take long before your restaurant gets a reputation for being unreliable.

Values create a company’s culture and help it stand out from the crowd. They are felt by your employees, your customers and strongly influence your brand. Here in Victoria, BC, our local grocery store chain was renowned for its customer service and community support. When the chain was acquired by a national corporation, we felt it almost immediately. That’s what happens when servicing the bottom line is valued over customer service.

Be authentic
Don’t just pick words that sound good; your values should be authentic and meaningful to you. Values range from the broad (“accountability” and “passion” at Coca Cola) to the very pragmatic (“fast is better than slow” at Google). As you think through your values, think about what you believe, what you want to be known for and what you’re prepared to do, no matter what. Imagine how you might communicate that value to employees and how it might apply in specific situations or to various aspects of your business.

In our last blog, we talked about aspiration or your company’s higher sense of purpose. Values walk hand-in-hand with aspiration. Together, they define who you are, why you exist, where you want go and what’s important to you in getting there. Far from being pie-in-the-sky and lofty, aspiration and values should guide your strategy and planning in a very practical way. If they don’t, you could be setting yourself up for a fall into the value gap.

Your values
See if you and your team can identify three to five values that your company currently holds or that you wish it held. These questions may help:

  • What values do we truly and passionately hold?
  • If circumstances changed and a value worked against us, would we keep it?
  • If we started a new company in a different line of work, what values would we build into that new company?

Alex Glassey is the founder of StratPad.Screen Shot 2013-02-05 at 10.41.40 PM