It’s not a job, it’s a revolution … How can cultural values inspire business to innovate smarter and grow faster?

May 8, 2017

We have all heard, and yawned, at the mission (purpose, vision, direction) statement that seeks to be the best in the industry, love every stakeholder, and make the world better.

We have all glazed over at the list of values (organisational, cultural, brand) … quality, excellence, professionalism, customer first, great service, efficiency, trust, honesty and respect.

Do organisations really think that these old “truths” will really achieve something better and more distinctive than every other company which repeats them?

What organisation wouldn’t seek, and doesnt need to have these traits? The real problem is they have no impact, they are mediocre words, they are lack passion and personality. In short, they sound like corporate bullshit!

So what are the statements and values that really stand out?

And how do these organisations use them to energise their people, to galvanise their operations, to spark their creativity, to bring to life their distinctive brand, and accelerate their growth?

I’m not a great fan of list of values. I’m even less fond of organisations who seem to think that organisational values, leadership values, brand values, and the like – should all be different.  What I do like is a small number (say 3!) of truly meaningful, highly distinctive, and positively inspiring words that can capture the essence of the organisation, the direction and the difference.

From these we can frame an inspiring purpose, from that we can develop a strong and focused strategy, from that we can shape and energise an organisation on the inside, that delivers an authentic and distinctive brand experience on the outside, and achieves this through a shared desire to innovate, perform and grow.

Here are a few examples, good in different ways:

Transferwise

4 values define everything:

  • Customers > Team > Ego
  • We get it done
  • No drama, good karma
  • This isn’t just a job, it’s a revolution

TransferWise was inspired by the personal experiences of founders Taavet Hinrikus, Skype’s first employee, and financial consultant Kristo Käärmann. As Estonians working between their home and the UK head office, they had personal experience of the “pain of international money transfer” due to bank charges and time. For an idea to evolve into a fast growing business the key is to focus on fast.What kind of culture and organisation do you need to be fastest? In a disruptive business, speed is what sets you apart from the competitors. Empowerment and autonomy are key to that. When it works, it means you move fast. But you need to watch out for how this structure evolves as the business grows. When it doesn’t work, it feels like chaos and there’s no real movement at all. It’s obvious that teams that are closest to customers and closest to code know most and can make the best decisions of what needs to happen. That means it’s key that they are empowered to do so.

Zappos

10 core values:

1. Deliver WOW Through Service
2. Embrace and Drive Change
3. Create Fun and a Little Weirdness
4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
5. Pursue Growth and Learning
6. Build Open and Honest Relationships with Communication
7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
8. Do More with Less
9. Be Passionate and Determined
10. Be Humble

Employees at the online retailer Zappos.com aren’t expected to memorize the company’s 10 core values, which were incorporated in 2006 based on a list of 100 character traits circulated by CEO Tony Hsieh. But they are expected to embody those values in their personalities—and not just at work. “The best employee is the person who can be the same person at home that they are at work,” says Jamie Naughton chief of staff for the Las Vegas-based company. When they are hired, employees sign contracts saying they understand the values, agree to be reviewed based on them, and understand that they can be fired if they fail to live up to them. This commitment makes the values “a living breathing thing, more than just a plaque on our lobby wall,” says Naughton, and it fuels the company’s reputation as a place where employees are happy and motivated.

Build-a-Bear Workshop

Core Values:

  • Reach
  • Learn
  • Di-bear-sity
  • Colla-bear-ate
  • Give
  • Cele-bear-ate

Build-A-Bear Workshop takes teddy bears very seriously, and “bear-isms” are front and center throughout the corporate culture, including at the corporate “bearquarters” in St. Louis. The company’s six core values are internally-facing—they’re not posted at retail stores. But within the company, they are important tools for bringing employees together across every level of the business. In fact, “Di-bear-sity,” the most recent value to be added to the statement, was named through a 2012 company-wide contest. And at quarterly corporate meetings, managers from individual stores can nominate employees for “Atta Bears” awards, citing excellent performance in one of the core values areas. Sharon John, Build-A-Bear’s CEO, says the core values were not on the list of things she wanted to change when she came to the company in a “turnaround situation” in 2013. “These are life values as well as company values,” she says, “They are unifying for our organization.”

Twitter

Mission statement:

“To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.”

The social networking site’s mission statement, characteristically, is fewer than 140 characters, a move that helps the statement embody the company’s identity in both form and content. The company’s 3,600 employees—2,000 of whom are based in Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, are encouraged to understand the mission statement as a defining corporate philosophy. “Our mission statement puts our users first and defines our clear purpose—to give everyone the ability to be heard, seen, and share their thoughts and experiences as they happen,” says Brian Schipper, vice president of human resources, “It is our compass when we’re building the platform and developing new products and policies. We want to empower individuals and be a force for good in the world.”

Whole Foods Markets

Higher Purpose Statement:

“With great courage, integrity and love—we embrace our responsibility to co-create a world where each of us, our communities, and our planet can flourish. All the while, celebrating the sheer love and joy of food.”

“I don’t think a lot of companies talk about love in the workplace,” says Mark Ehrnstein, global vice president of team member services at Whole Foods Market’s Austin headquarters, “but we do.” The grocery chain’s higher purpose statement is meant to reinforce that passionate outlook to customers, suppliers, stockholders, and employees alike. Ehrnstein adds that the statement is part of what helps keep the various stakeholders connected in a business that needs to be open to change. “We have to continually evolve our thinking and embrace change,” he says, “We have to do that while staying true to who we are, and staying true to the core of the company.”

Airbnb

6 early start-up values:

  • Be a host
  • Champion the mission
  • Every frame matters
  • Be a cereal entrepreneur*
  • Simplify
  • Embrace the adventure

Airbnb’s values are more of an homage to their early beginnings, and one more reason to crush on the company. Back when founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbla were just getting started with then-named Air Bed and Breakfast, they launched a creative cereal* campaign in an attempt to alleviate the $40k in credit card debt they’d racked up trying to launch their startup.

But then as they grew up they realised they needed to get smarter about how they communicate this across a global business, and balance their irreverent youthfulness with the need to build a respected corporate image. Jonathan Mildenhall’s great work on values-driven purpose created the fabulous line “Belong Anywhere” which connected to the millennial travel lust, and a higher purpose inside and outside their business. It was captured further in 4 simple words together which become their new value equation:

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