Don’t Paint Values by Numbers

Paint by Numbers

“Our Values: customer focus, responsibility, innovation, performance, teamwork.”

What do you think when you read something like that?

“That’s an important list of drivers that gives me an insight into how they run their business” or, “Yadda, yadda”?

Lists like these might (just) look good from a distance — “oh, they say something about values” — but get close and you realise there’s nothing there.

Painting by Numbers?

It’s the painting-by-numbers of leadership. (And would you put one of those on your wall?)

Values are the guiding principles of how you make trade-offs, and they shout loud the kind of business you are. Tell me you have an unconvincing list of empty concepts at the heart of your business, and I’m likely to believe you.

But what about this from a firm of retail consultants?

“Obsessive. We are obsessed with fashion and shopping. We live it, love it, and just ‘get it’. An obsessive passion which means we’re like a ‘dog with a bone’ to get the best job done.”

‘Obsessive’ means something to this company and any recruit or customer who reads that little story would have at least some idea of what they’re dealing with. Convinced by the story or not, this is a different kind of company to our friends with ‘customer focus’.

The Truth

Every business has values, whether they’re written down and posted to an About Us page or not. If you decide to disclose yours, don’t be tempted by blandery, don’t settle for a wish list of concepts that you’d like to be true, and don’t waste your time with the dictionary.

Values are the truth about who you are as a company and if you want your staff to live them and your customers to trust them, if you want them to make any difference at all, show what they mean by giving some context.

Search for stories that describe who you are on your best days. What is absolutely true about your company, and absolutely you? Write it down. And publish that.

Neatly filed under Purpose on October 28, 2010
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6 cracking comments

Martin Hill-Wilson on October 31, 2010 at 1:06 am

My observation on values in a business context is that if they are being discussed as a topic then they are likely to upgraded as often as the photocopier.

The real thing is just lived and customers get to know about those kinds of companies fast since they are so rare

Nick on October 31, 2010 at 7:50 am

Given the laws of probability it’s guaranteed that some companies become “the real thing” by “just living”. But if you want values to be at the heart of your business, why leave it to chance?

Adrian Swinscoe on October 31, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Nick, I agree understanding the values that underpin the way we do business is important but what seems to me to be more important is to understand what does that value mean in a business sense ie. what sort of activity does it drive, what does it stop you doing etc etc


Nick on October 31, 2010 at 3:40 pm

You’re right, clarifying and communicating your values effectively are just the first few steps on the road.

But the words only have meaning if you turn them into actions. Pushing for that connection is a leaders never ending journey.

Marc Sokol on November 1, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Hi Nick,

Just had a chance to visit your blog. Many layers to explore and looking forward to that.

But my first reaction is one of synchronicity — here you are commenting on the ‘paint by number’ approach to leadership and my last post was riffing on different ‘painting’ approaches to strategy (paint by numbers being just one of those), which was inspired by Martin Hill-Wilson’s initial posting on paining as a metaphor for forging a customer service strategy.

Perhaps we all share a clear preference for Intuition (N) on MBTI style indicator!

Looking forward to reading more of your work.

Malcolm Evans on November 1, 2010 at 9:44 pm

Couldn’t agree more – too people think that you “do” values, or “get” values. No, values are lived.
I often illustrate the point by running my thumb and forefinger down in a long line through the air and asking people to imagine that I am following their spine – and we can cut in half as if it was a stick of rock, with lettering down the middle.
You ask people to look and see what the words are that describe their own business values – and they often become uncomfortable when they face the reality, not the recited “official company line”.
Values are specific and authentic, or else they are without value.

What do you think? ...