March 13, 2023

Company Values: Live Them or Lose Them

Navigating The Highroad logo with Mike Albert associates photo

Almost every company has values, but very few live them. That’s because identifying, articulating, and embedding values into a company’s culture is hard work. To fill them with genuine meaning and ensure they truly impact a company’s culture requires near-constant care and attention. But the effort is worth it.

There are three reasons why company values are so critical.

First, they define the essence, the heart and soul, of an organization.

Second, they set the expectations for the behaviors that will be encouraged and celebrated (and, by default, those that will be frowned upon).

Third, when relevant and inspirational, they help propel an organization forward.

In this piece, I’ll share some advice on how a company can create and foster company values, including many lessons from the process our company, Mike Albert, conducted to develop our own.

Make Them Yours

First and most importantly—every company should create its own values. Resist the temptation to turn to Google or create a list based on other organizations. Instead, draw inspiration and ideas from your associates, your company’s mission and vision statement, and your brand’s personality.

At Mike Albert, we surveyed our associates and hosted dozens of discussions and brainstorming sessions to get to the heart of our organization. This gave us excellent input and ensured that the team would be more invested in them.

All told, our effort consumed about a full year. You may not need as much time, but you should invest whatever is necessary to arrive at the values that are unique and organic to your company.

Be Clear and Evocative

For values to be embraced and lived, they must first be clear. For example, one of our values is “Own It.” It’s a simple way of communicating that we want all our associates to own their attitudes, their tasks, their deliverables, their actions…everything that they do.

Two of our other values are “Client Obsessed,” and “Financially Fixated.” We could have chosen “Client Centric” and “Financially Focused,” but we intentionally prioritized language with more punch and passion. If you think about values as maxims to work and live by, you want the words that express them to motivate and inspire.

Make Them Work Inside and Out

As you craft the correct language to express your values, be sure they apply internally and externally. For instance, our “Client Obsessed” value addresses both the external clients our company serves and our internal clients—our fellow associates. Our “Own It” value not only refers to owning one’s behavior with co-workers but with our clients and prospects, too.

Embed Them Everywhere

To truly have an impact, company values need to be embedded in your day-to-day culture. Ours are printed in foot-high letters on some of the larger, more prominent walls at our headquarters, making them impossible to ignore. They’re also displayed in every meeting room, with one value given special emphasis.

Values should be embedded in your discussions and evaluations as well. Our executive team is encouraged to focus on one or two of our values in each of their team meetings to see how everyone is applying them day in and day out. We even incorporate our values into our recruitment process by discussing them with candidates during interviews and encouraging our interviewers to keep in mind how well prospective employees will deliver against them.

Sometimes it’s helpful to reinforce your values in more dramatic and symbolic ways. For example, one of our values is “One Team,” which is meant to tear down silos. On every new employee's first day, the entire company greets the new associate in the lobby (literally as one team) with a round of applause and lots of smiles. Yes, it can cause a few blushes, but it’s an unforgettable experience.

Share Them with the World

Your values won't fully blossom if they’re kept an inside secret. The more you share them beyond your walls, the stronger they become. I think this is because when you share them publicly, you invite scrutiny, which motivates everyone to live up to them. So, plant your flag and put your values on your website, in your pitch decks, in your annual reports…everywhere.

Hold Everyone Accountable

There’s no surer way of robbing values of their power than for a company’s leaders to pay them only lip service. Values start at the top. If your message to your associates is that your values truly matter, then you need to live them and hold even your most senior leaders accountable to them.

We do this at Mike Albert by making them part of the annual review process. While we don’t numerically score people on our values, we do discuss whether they have been observed. We also provide a mechanism on our intranet for associates to give a “shout-out” to another colleague whose done something that exemplifies a value.

Fight Over Them

If your values are truly being embraced, you’ll sometimes see them used by associates to challenge a particular decision or proposed course of action. For example, I’ve been in meetings where colleagues have said things like, “I’m not so sure that doing that would be in keeping with our One Team value.”

This observation almost always stimulates healthy debate and sometimes leads to a total course correction. Sometimes, the discussion validates the righteousness of the original decision. Either way, it’s a win-win.

Update Them—Occasionally

Company values shouldn’t come and go with the wind. Unless your company is going through a significant transformation, your values should hold steady through most, twists and turns in business.

That said, there should be a thorough review of your values every year or two. The question isn’t: “Is it time to completely redo our values?” Instead, it’s: “Are there ways we can modify or add to our values to make them stronger and to better reflect where we are as a business?”

Our company’s five values took shape about five years ago. But in 2022, we added a sixth: “Respect All People, the Earth, and Ethical Codes.” This new value was inspired by our company’s commitment to Environmental, Social, & Governance (ESG) goals that we have made meaningful progress against over the past couple of years.

Interestingly, adding this value reflects another: “What Got Us Here, Won’t Get Us There.” Our company has enjoyed considerable and enviable success for more than 60 years. But what may have worked forty years ago or even five years ago may no longer be appropriate today. Nothing should be so sacred as to be beyond question. Values included.