I have lost count of the times have I run a workshop with a board of suited, grey, middle-aged, male accountants only for them to insist that they are brimming with passion and it has to be a core value for their organisation? Really?
I don’t know about you, but I like my passion decorated with hearts, along with a bottle of The Veuve and some rather smooth sheets. When on earth did passion creep into the board room and what is it doing there?
The reason I cite this example is because it calls into question what company values are for. Their purpose, in my experience, is to provide a clear set of instructions for organisations to make it easier for people to make choices. If you know where you want to go (you have a vision) and what your purpose is (your mission) then it is supremely helpful for all concerned if you know how you are going to get there (your values). Values should not be abstract ‘things we believe in’ but should be expressed as behaviours – so that all the people working at an organisation, from the CEO to the most junior account executive, have an idea of what to do when faced with choices. So, while you might have one word as a value ‘title’ you should articulate it with examples. If your value is ‘imagination’ you should explain it; ‘we think creatively, we have broad horizons and stay ahead of our competitors’, for example. Armed with that, I know that I should spend an extra five minutes researching a new way to track media coverage, or I should provide support to ensure ongoing learning and development for my team.
Having a good set of values which are articulated in this way is the bedrock of a successful company brand. It means you can build on them to differentiate your marketing messages, it means you are more efficient and cohesive as a team. And it works. In 2006 two studies that linked corporate values and mission statements with financial performance found that the most successful firms mentioned values other than profits. The less successful firms focused almost entirely on profitability (Dess, Lumpkin and Eisner, 2006).
I recommend organisations have no more than four values, personally I struggle to remember more than three. They should be true to the organisation (so should come from the teams and not be imposed), and they can evolve over time (years) as the company matures and its challenges change. And they should be as specific as possible so that they can be described as behaviours. Which brings me back to passion. What does that mean in terms of how I am to behave? I certainly care a lot about the place I work, but is what I feel really ‘passion’? Can you really expect your junior developer to have ‘passion’ for their workplace? Would it not be better for their mental and physical well-being to reserve their passion for their partner, or their marathon running, music, or oil-painting? Even if the idea that work is all there is in life and the most important thing at that, is appealing to boards and business founders, it is very alienating and restricting to anyone else.
Ultimately, it’s time for the grey-suits to get real. Stop trying to impose passion as a company value and come up with something original, distinctive and meaningful. If you want to get the best out of people you need to realise you are competing for time and brain space with the stuff of life – relationships, children, family, travel, food…As a business leader you have to recognise that people don’t want to spend half their lives away from their real passions working in organisations that are not contributing to the world positively. By sharing original and distinctive company values you are taking a step towards sharing your purpose and making a positive contribution beyond profits. As Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce says, “You have the opportunity to set up companies that do good in the world. It’s easy. There’s all this incredible energy in your company and you can unleash it for good. If you’re not unleashing it, you’re missing something”.
Just don’t call it passion!