The message then, as it is now, 6 years on, is ‘if you really believe in a cause, make it your purpose’. A purpose, at the top level of the business can drive engagement, give clarity of direction and off this help the business make good decisions. The same is true of brands; if your brand does believe in something, put it front and centre… let the brand positioning flow from it and feed back into it.
But if it’s just words, just a management tick-box exercise; if it’s just something you are doing to make shareholders value you more, save yourself the time and bother and pursue profit. Vanity and venality have made many business attractive and many people rich. But in truth, you can still be profitable in a responsible way, you can still do this in a way that is good for people and planet, but frankly it saves everyone the BS.
Just ask BrewDog; a company lauded for its manifesto – or charter – (“We bleed craft beer”, “We are uncompromising”, “We blow shit up”) but now, a company that will forever carry about that oddly mendacious whiff of weasely word-smithing, big on style, low, very low, on real substance. And the real salt in the wounds is the claim that “Without us, we are nothing” which according to the seemingly substantive and certainly substantial allegations rings hollow at best, malicious and deeply worrying at worst.
Companies and brands have the power to change the world for the better. They can – they have in the past and they do today – impact people positively, either through the generation of wealth, meeting of needs or even just feeling good about yourself. But the persistent desire to believe the hype in the business world about silver bullets just doesn’t help.
At The Crow Flies we work with clients to put strategic foundations in place – including purpose and values – that brands believe in and can unleash potential. But, these things only make a difference if you mean them.
I drive a VW, it’s my third. So does my wife, she’s on her second Beetle. And my brother (well an Audi, same thing) and his wife. So does my dad and my mum. We all drive vehicles by a car manufacturer whose stated vision is:
“…to offer attractive, safe and environmentally sound vehicles which can compete in an increasingly tough market and set world standards in their respective class.” (My italics)
And their values? Well, they roll something like this:
Business must serve the good of the people. Business that serves the good of the people requires competition. Business that serves the good of the people is based on merit. Business that serves the good of the people takes place globally. Business that serves the good of the people must be sustainable. Business that serves the good of the people demands responsibility.
Like some Gregorian chant, I imagine all the VW employees love intoning these each morning before work. A lovely vision; lovely values; lovingly crafted too, no doubt.
Yet now hollow and meaningless.
A decade ago, Vision and Values were all the rage. I went through it; all my friends working in different places did. Everyone has to have a Vision, darling! They’re so today! Everyone has to have values. They are so hip, so vital. Because we’re not about chasing money at all, oh no! Ghastly thought! We’re really about being just and honest and authentic and loveable.
Companies paid lots of money to articulate them and then – and this was the fun bit – roll them out across the business to slack-jawed employees who couldn’t believe they were being given the day off, usually to play a form of vision and values board game.
Joking to one side, the thinking is logical. Get aligned on your vision, get aligned on your values and you make better decisions. But it became consultancy hokey too quickly. If you’re business is really values led, you don’t need a vision and values project. You don’t need roll out. You know them. You feel them. You live them. Sure, sometimes it pays to get them written down, and the real values led companies find this relatively straightforward. ‘We will cherish the earth’, is one particularly memorable value of a client of mine. But most companies? Well, just take your pick from:
…and you’ll be there. Plus, you can rest easy in the knowledge that your values are the same as everyone else, which will help when you switch companies, or at least in the interview.
This is the hard truth: the chances are yours isn’t a values led business any more. Further, it will struggle to be, whatever is passed down on tablets of stone. The Founder died five generations ago; the rest of the family sold out three generations ago. You’ve been owned by venture capitalists; you’ve been merged with and split away from. If company values can endure that, then you have Voldemort as your CEO and have been caching in on Horcruxes. Don’t mistake common human decency, drive and the innate desire of people to give their best, be proud and do a great job with some cookie-crumble top down values ‘fit’. It won’t wash. You know it and so do your employees. Volkswagen know it – despite, I’m sure the best of intentions. I bet Tesco know it now. If values don’t already guide you, tread carefully. If you can’t look into what you already have and work from there, don’t make them up and sheep dip. Save yourself the time, the money and the disengaging pain of seeing vanilla statements posted up around the walls of your beige painted office. Stop the hypocrisy, stop the motivational images of breaching whales and chase the money.
But if you care, truly care, about how you do business, how you delight your customers, how you compete and if you see the financial return as the reward for a job well done, then shout about your values loud and proud. Write them in your language and hold yourself – and everyone you work for – to account by them. Not that you’ll need to.
David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps discover the direct route to success for brands and businesses. The Crow Flies helps companies find their strategic direction, including vision and values, but only when they mean it… Get in touch: email@example.com; +44 (0) 1283 246260; @crowflieshigh