No matter what kind of company you are: identifying and nurturing the values of your organization helps to forge a healthy company culture, and empowers employees. But values will only be beneficial if they spring from true beliefs and convictions - and if you have the courage to let them serve as your organization’s compass.
What are values, anyway?
Values are not something you invent. Well, you could, but creating values just for the sake of what looks good on paper does not help your business in any way. On the contrary, you may come across as superficial and unauthentic, and your team would disengage as they see values on your website that do not correspond with how the company really works. You would just create an empty shell, no substance.
I cannot say it often enough: values are not about what you think you should be. It is not enough to cherry-pick preset values from famous brands or successful competitors, and believe that will make your company.
Your values encapsulate who you are. They define you and direct how you think and act. Values are a behavioral compass for your organization, a set of beliefs that gives distinctive and recognizable flavour and color to your decision-making.
Values are the cornerstones of your company’s overarching strategy (often called “brand strategy”) exactly for this reason. In light of my role as Partner in charge of impact and communications at Norselab, a Norwegian impact investor, part of my work is to support companies in our portfolio in defining values they can stand by. The fact that we choose to work both on values and the broader brand framework very early on, is not by accident.
Many people seem to think that company values are simply “marketing fluff” – something you will add to make yourself look good once everything else is set – when in fact they are exactly the opposite. Working with founders and teams that lack insights into the power of a solid brand strategy, I’m often confronted with this misconception. But once we start working on the company’s identity together, both the founders and I find great satisfaction in their realization that values serve a greater purpose in building their company.
Values are monuments of company culture
The thing about culture, especially in startups and scaleups, is that it requires constant attention. In an environment where team growth is exponential, companies are vulnerable to dilution of their culture. On a team of just a handful of people, the arrival of any new employee may alter the company culture. Knowing how beneficial a good company culture is for both people and business, it’s not an option to leave this to chance.
Company culture is therefore something we are particularly attached to at Norselab. We have our own People Philosophy dedicated to promoting healthy company cultures in the companies we invest in. We also have expertise on our team to support founders on company culture as their companies grow.
Company values are super-efficient tools to keep your company culture on course. As a matter of fact, shared values are also a prerequisite for high performance on diverse teams.
Everything is intertwined. If you haven’t defined your values – or worse – if your values are only for show, how will you make sure that you recruit people that are aligned with the deeper values that unites your team and gives your company an edge?
Values create consistency
Well-defined company values echo and support the vision of the company; the long-term direction for your business. They express the principles and behavior that you believe is crucial to achieving your vision. Values should permeate every employee, every strategic discussion. When confronted with a tough decision, any employee should be able to lean on the company values to understand which path to choose. Well-anchored values empower individuals and teams to make independent decisions in line with strategy, because they have been taught the culture, focus and ethics of your company.
In short, defining values creates consistency and predictability across your organization. Working out of a common framework, everyone is empowered to make the right decisions, and to understand decisions of others. It’s good for your strategy, and on top of that, it’s good for your employee's satisfaction and feeling of belonging.
Why you should stress-test your values
If you work out your values in the right way, they can turn out to be superpowers for your company. However, stress-testing your values is always a good idea. Put them to the test on both everyday decisions and more difficult strategic or ethical decisions! The idea is to evaluate whether our values would hold up in a real-world setting, or whether they are just “lipstick on a pig”.
Here are a few questions we asked ourselves at Norselab when we worked on defining our own values:
- In a recruitment process, how would these values affect which candidate we hire?
- When developing a new investment fund, can our values offer direction in terms of which companies the fund should invest in?
- When confronted with tough, strategic decisions, are we willing to stick with these values?
- If the financial upside of a deal was big enough, would we allow for an ad-hoc decision that goes against our values?
You may discover that your values are window-dressing, which might be a tough thing to recognize. Let me offer you another perspective: consider it a gift. Should your values not pass the stress test, this leaves you the opportunity to discover the true principles that drive your decisions and behaviour. A tip for the road: do regular check-ins with the stress test. If, after some time, your values are off, it’s your chance to work on the company culture, and to reunite with your values. Or, on the other hand, it’s a chance to recognize that your values may have evolved, and to consider updating your strategy.
Value-driven choices are a well-documented phenomenon in consumer branding. It’s no different in the business world. We choose to surround ourselves with people and brands who share our values and worldview. People notice when you say what you are and are what you say. They also notice when you don’t. Truthful values, values you live by, provide a competitive advantage in every aspect of your business.
At Norselab, we see this every day. Founders who present their companies, talents who seek to work in our ecosystem and investors who entrust us to handle their money come to us because we have our own, distinctive values and approach to supporting meaningful growth companies. Although defining your values can be really hard work – especially if you have a bigger team where values have not been articulated before – they can be powerful cultural and strategic tools once you’ve nailed them. Hopefully I’ve made a case for why this should be a priority in your organization too.