Strengthen your bonds with staff and customers

By Rob Gray, Monday 23 July 2018

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Businesses exist to make money. But in order for a company to turn a profit, its employees must be clear as to what is being asked of them, and motivated to work in the right way to achieve those objectives.


One of the most effective ways of strengthening the bond employees have with the organisation and helping them feel positive about what they do is to instil a common purpose by developing and promoting a set of leadership values. These core values should express the character of an organisation and reflect the attitudes, aspirations and behaviour of the people running it. Just as importantly, they should also be in tune with employees’ personal values so that employees feel a real connection and affinity with the business – rather than viewing work simply as a way to pay the bills. 

Print and graphics group Grafenia recently produced an Our Leadership Values guide for its employees and business partners, which it refers to as a playbook for doing things right... and doing the right things. The thinking is that these leadership values should always be borne in mind when making decisions or considering how to act. So, what triggered the creation of this guide? 

“Last year I was fortunate enough to meet a senior executive at the world’s biggest online retailer,” says Grafenia chief executive Peter Gunning. “He explained how critical their leadership values were and how ingrained in their people processes they were. When I got back to the UK, I worked with our senior leaders to define our own set of values. It started at 12 and then it grew to 19.” 

When evaluating its workers’ performance, Grafenia looks at different areas, beginning with quantitative measures – how they are doing versus their targets. But the business also tracks its employees’ ‘intelligence badges’ – which skills they have and what they are working towards. 

“We wanted some way to evaluate the softer skills, the qualitative side,” says Gunning. “And that’s where the leadership values came in. How could people know how we wanted them to behave, if we didn’t set standards? Someone might be smashing their targets and be skilled up. But they could be a complete arsehole.” 

Ryedale Group also has a set of leadership values. These emerged when the leadership team sat down with a range of individuals within the business and discussed what might comprise a set of ‘ideal behaviours’ that would, on the whole, make the company a better place to work. 

“In terms of values, these are more of a moral and ethical guide regarding how we want to do business – as a family business,” says managing director James Buffoni. “When family is involved, or perhaps your name is above the door, then values tend to be quite a personal set of statements.”

Behaviour pointers

The ‘behaviours’ serve as a benchmark or series of expectations relating to how employees should treat each other and behave in certain situations. They act as a useful reminder, Buffoni elaborates, when a tricky decision has to be made or when someone is struggling with their mood. “As human beings we all err, so our behaviours and values help to remind us what good looks like and how we should choose to behave if we are in doubt,” adds Buffoni. “They can also differentiate the organisation from others – so that we are more than a collection of business processes. I think values can add a more personal touch to businesses.”

Professor Roger Steare, an expert advisor on leadership, culture and ethics who styles himself The Corporate Philosopher, says where businesses can go wrong is in trying to reinvent moral values that have served humanity perfectly well for thousands of years. Narcissistic leaders and over-eager communications teams can take things too far in an effort to put a unique stamp on the company. 

“A moral value is very simply a virtue; if you like, a philosophical character trait that enables us to make better decisions and do the right thing,” says Steare. “Have you got a better one than the moral virtue we call fairness? Or compassion? Or wisdom? What’s wrong with those? Why do you have to reinvent them as if it’s some sort of branding exercise? It’s appalling.”

Steare is scathing of those businesses who treat leadership values as little more than window dressing because they are unable or unwilling to apply enduring moral values to the decisions they need to make. In his view, scandals such as the mis-selling of PPI and the Dieselgate emissions deception would have been avoided if the companies involved truly lived up to the values they espoused. 

Steare’s research has found that there are two types of moral vices or flaws displayed by leaders that run counter to embedding real values into an organisation. One is a lack of humility; the aforementioned narcissistic leader who exhibits an ‘I know best because I think I am really good at what I do’ approach. The second is a lack of empathy for other people.

What is his advice for going about it properly? “I say to leaders of SMEs, keep it human, keep it egalitarian,” says Steare. “Yes, at the end of the day you are the boss. But stop thinking you are the boss because what bosses do is boss people around. Imagine how you might lead differently if you had to be elected into your role as managing director next year, not only by your colleagues, but by your customers.” 

Although the top brass should lead by example, Steare is quick to make the point that the only answer with any real meaning to the question ‘who is responsible for doing the right thing in the workplace community?’ is, “everyone”.

Where then to start with embedding values? With any leader or team that is already very close to the ideal, suggests Steare. “Go where the energy is; where people are enthusiastic and try to act with integrity and achieve the business outcomes.” 

Having agreed a set of values, it is important to cement them through communication. Buffoni says Ryedale has made sure its values are “deliberately unavoidable”. How so? By printing them out and putting them on the wall in reception.

“We encourage everyone to judge us by them,” says Buffoni. “We also factor them into recruiting, induction and appraisal processes. Of course, they are also in the company handbook but I prefer such things to be writ large and in public.”

Amberley Adhesive Labels managing director Trevor Smith reinforces the point that you have be seen to live by the values you espouse: “There is absolutely no point having a wonderful list of values if you as the leader are seen not to follow or believe in them. For example, if it’s important to your values that everyone within the organisation are seen as equals then don’t disrupt this by giving your CEO their own parking space!”

Once it had decided on its values, Grafenia introduced them to its teams. First with team town-hall meetings and then to its Nettl and partners. It was important, Gunning states, to tell Grafenia’s partners what kind of business they are partnering with. A little later, once the Our Leadership Values book was printed, partners were sent a few copies. “We wanted to be open and transparent about the behaviour we expect – how we expect our teams to deal with each other and our partners,” says Gunning. “That way, they can call us to account when we don’t meet our own standards.”

Managing values

But short of an infraction being highlighted by a customer or partner, how can you know what’s going on? How can you ensure your leadership values are adhered to without adding to administrative bureaucracy, for example by bringing in some dispiriting box-ticking? 

Gunning is adamant he hates admin, but equally resolute that values should not be something that only gets discussed once a year. Grafenia is “going deeper”, embarking on another phase of work that weaves in a feedback element to increase the likelihood of its values being observed.

“All of our people will be able to rate their own teams, their peers and their leaders online in our system. Think of it a bit like constant 360-degree feedback. If you ‘catch someone doing something right’, then leave praise against the leadership value you’ve observed. A bit like commenting on someone’s funny cat picture on Facebook. 

“Likewise, if you’ve seen something which goes against our values – then leave an ‘ImproveNote’ on their profile. Praise is public, ImproveNotes are only shared with the individual and their leader. See it, leave a note and we deal with issues as they happen. We’re not sat at their annual review saying, ‘so you were a bit of a Muppet four months ago weren’t you Keith’.”

It’s safe to assume that ‘Do not act like Miss Piggy, the Swedish Chef or Animal’ is not specifically among the leadership values of any businesses in this sector. But the spirit of that principle most certainly is. And those companies committed to values like these are more likely to be nicer places to work and better business partners than those that are not. 

Bringing values to your business

Creating a set of leadership values

The values you choose should be good for both the commercial performance of your business and the happiness and wellbeing of your employees. 

Never pick a value that is out of keeping with the way your organisation behaves. 

If possible, co-create the values with your workforce, for instance by organising workshops. Employees will respond far better to values they have shared in creating than those imposed on them, which will probably feel more like rules than principles.

Always strive to attain and uphold your values.

Choose values with an easily understandable impact – employees should be able to readily appreciate how applying the values will make the company better. Purpose is of immense importance.

Your leadership values must be grounded in truth and not superficial.

Communicating your values

Make sure you can explain how your values can be applied and communicate what they look like in action.

Everyone within the organisation should uphold its values but it is vital that senior management leads by example, both in deed and in ensuring that the content of any communication with staff is in line with the values.

Do not communicate your values once and then turn off the tap. They should be communicated on an ongoing basis so that they become hardwired into the business rather than forgotten about.

Weave your core values into your employee induction and training programmes.

Team meetings and group discussions are an excellent forum for reinforcing values.

Explain how your chosen values contribute to, shape and support your corporate culture.

Strong, positive values are an essential building block for trust, and among the most important assets a business can have. There is a great deal of potential to build long-term, mutually beneficial commercial relationships with partner organisations who hold similar values to yours. Make sure existing and prospective partners are aware of your values and the steps you take to stay true to them.

Be sure your values are easy to find on your website. Don’t think of this as some sort of bragging, more as a way of hardening your determination to make them central to the way you work. If they are there for the world to see 24/7, year-round, that’s a strong incentive to abide by them.

Making the most of your commitment

Values are meaningless puff if they are not embodied by your organisation as a whole.

Refer to your values when recruiting new members of staff to help you identify candidates who will fit in with the culture of your business and the way you go about doing things. Using a values-based recruiting approach for new hires is one way of increasing your chances of bringing in people whose behaviour sits comfortably with your corporate culture and will help perpetuate it.

Integrate adherence to values into performance reviews and in determining who is suitable for promotion.

Consider all important decisions in the context of your values. If a course of action conflicts with any of your values, should you really be taking it?

Accept that you will be called out on any non-compliance with your own values by employees and other stakeholders such as customers and suppliers. Either correct your transgression immediately or provide a very good reason for your actions. Make that a brilliant reason – there are few imaginable circumstances in which flouting your own values is a wise move!

Stay committed to your values – do not just shove them in a drawer. Devising them is on its own nowhere near enough. 

Reinforce and if possible reward behaviours that live up to your values. And challenge those behaviours that do not.

Do some research among your employees. A good question to ask is whether they believe the real values of the organisation match the stated ones. 

Track progress after you have brought in your values and take the trouble to find out how your employees feel about them. Are they conscious of the fact that alignment between their personal values and the corporate values may play an important role in securing corporate success – as well as helping them feel at ease and proud at work?

As the famous saying goes, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Keep an eye out for any ingrained cultural bad habits that could derail your best intentions. 

Make sure your brand positioning aligns rather than conflicts with your leadership values and take the trouble to ensure that any advertising you do or marketing material you produce is likewise in harmony with your stance on values. 

Dealing with breaches 

There is no point developing and introducing a set of values only to ignore any obvious breaches.

If the breach is serious, it may well already be covered by existing employment contract provisions/standard disciplinary procedures. 

Less serious breaches may be seen as an ‘early warning system’. Nip problems in the bud by providing staff with corrective coaching.

However, breaches can also be useful to test and to review the values. As values may change over time, statements about them are difficult to perfect from the outset.

Keep a tally of breaches. If the total starts to mount up, you have a problem. Either with the values per se or more likely with the way they are communicated or perceived. Think about how you could better express them and their importance.

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