We have all seen a myriad of company websites touting a list of values they stand for:

  • Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence;
  • Integrity and honesty in everything we do;
  • High performance and great behaviours driving exceptional rewards;
  • Respect, trust and integrity; the list goes on.

And yet, it is no good saying what you stand for if the actions of the people and the company operations are not in alignment with what the values presumably set the bar to be.  Values are not mere marketing, nice to have fuzzy words, but rather guiding principles that are supposed to be the bedrock and governance practice of every individual within the organisation. The values listed above are those of notable organisations.  Companies that until the recent past were held in high regard until they were linked or associated with fraud, corruption and the manipulation of the truth.  One would hope that by now, we would be wiser, smarter and behave more responsibly.  But alas, this is not the case.

Countless people are talking about values but how many people in any organisation are aware of what values the company supposedly stands for?  And if they don’t know what they are, how can they be behaving in alignment with those values?  Do we brandish certain values to the outside world, whilst we create compensation and rewards structures that promote behaviours that are contradictory? Values are not drawn up by a single individual or, more worryingly, by a marketing company who then presents some nice fluffy document or prospectus.  Values are determined by the people building and driving the organisation – by individuals who are committed to a vision and have the courage to develop a set of principles they are committed to living by in order to meet that vision.  Everyone in the organisation is responsible for acting in alignment with the values.  But let’s take a closer look… The following is an extract of some values of a financial services organisation.  This is for example purposes only and is not meant to single them out per se, but rather to show the potential complexity in adhering to values and knowing what truly will be ‘rewarded’.

  • Our clients’ interests always come first.
  • Our goal is to provide superior returns to our shareholders (…significant employee stock ownership aligns the interests of our employees and our shareholders.)
  • We stress creativity and imagination in everything we do. (…We pride ourselves on having pioneered many of the practices and techniques that have become standard in the industry.)
  • Integrity and honesty are at the heart of our business.

One could argue that it is these same values that drove this organisation and its people to develop and market complex financial instruments that were a factor in the lead up to the financial crisis, with the exception of course of the last principle – integrity and honesty.  But when a reward system is based on short-term gains and organisations are under pressure to post quarterly results, people choose to hear what they want to hear, making them feel that they are acting honestly. Back in 1990, in an article by Amar Bhide and Howard H. Stevenson entitled Why Be Honest If Honesty Doesn’t Pay, published in the Harvard Business Review, they had highlighted that unfortunately, treachery can pay, and that without values, without a basic preference for right over wrong, trust based on such self-delusion would crumble in the face of temptation.

The recent events have proven this.  Suffice to say, no one person is exempt from knowing, honouring and living the values, regardless of rank, position or title.  People in an organisation and serving an organisation have a fiduciary responsibility to balance results against the backdrop of ethics and purpose.  The real challenge is for each and every one of us to have the courage to do what is right, to think, speak and act with the highest intention, and to have the courage to say no, to break away from the crowd and not be lulled by what the proverbial Joneses are doing.  Failure to do so will inadvertently lead to a more disturbing economic climate than we are experiencing currently. So how is this done?  The key word here is alignment.  Imagine a compass setting for a moment.  If the heading is North, everyone first needs to know the heading is North.  We then need to determine what behaviours are in alignment with the North heading.  And then they need to be tested, creating scenarios that will test their applicability – the what if scenarios.  Just as any sailor knows, the seas change, the winds shift direction, but the heading is there and the skills and tenacity to navigate the course are what determine the true leaders.