“No men can act with effect who do not act in concert; no men can act in concert who do not act with confidence; no men can act with confidence who are not bound together with common opinions, common affections, and common interests.” — Edmund Burke, 18th century British statesman

During the 1980s, when I was co-founder and leader of The Achieve Group, we worked with California-based Zenger Miller and Tom Peters to implement a culture-change process based on Peters’ and Bob Waterman’s book, In Search of Excellence. Adding to, and building upon, the work of their McKinsey & Company colleagues, Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy, Peters and Waterman showed that the cultures of excellent companies are grounded in core values.

The idea of clarifying core values was new for many management teams at the time. We helped hundreds of teams in centering their change-and improvement-effects around their vision, as well as a set of three to five core values that best defined the culture they were trying to reinforce, change, or improve.

Today it’s a rare organization that doesn’t have a set (most often a laundry list) of values. In fact, values have become one more item added to the requisite organization checklist (Organization chart? Check. Strategic plan? Check. Budget? Check. Vision statement? Check. Values? Check). Frequently when we ask about the organization’s values, a dusty old piece of paper is produced. Quite often is followed by a debate about whether or not this is the right version of the organization’s values.

Many organizations can point to a list of values. The real question is how the values are lived. Have we just done our “values thing” during a planning session or are they actively used in our daily operations? Do they have a high “snicker factor” to be greeted with rolled eyes when they are occasionally brought forward? As a manager have I “Dilbertized” my workplace by going through the motions of periodically referring to vision, values, and purpose when the leadership spotlight is turned on us or when it is annual planning time again?

A key test of whether core values are alive and real in an organization is to ask team members at random to recite those values. If they can’t do it without referring to a piece of paper, there are either too many values (ideally they should be no more than three or four words or short phrases – five if you really stretch it) or they aren’t being used in daily operations.

Here are some examples of how highly effective leaders keep core values alive:

  • Make “values fit” a key criterion in hiring. Most effective leaders know that you can improve a person’s skills and experience with training and development, but it’s much harder to train for attitude and almost impossible to change a person’s core values.
  • Replace rules and policies with values and trust. Effective leaders treat team members as responsible adults who want to do the right thing for the team or organization. They know that with good support, training, and examples to follow, most people will exercise good judgment. The exceptions can be dealt with on an as-needed basis. This principle can also extend to customers. For example, we know of one courier company that automatically sends customers up to $300 for any damage claims. Experience has shown that customers are dishonest less than 1% of the time.
  • Promote only those people who are role models for the organization’s values. Promotions are the clearest indication of whether values are lived or simply espoused. All too often, a manager will declare the values of teamwork, customer service, and trust, but then promote someone who is the meanest SOB in the place, manages by e-mail, rarely sees customers or team members, and “snoopervises” rules like the Gestapo – simply because he or she gets the job done. In such cases, it becomes evident just how important (or unimportant) lived values really are.