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Corporate Values Should Not Be Set By The Corporation

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AOL is currently going through the process of defining a new set of corporate values.  They are collecting input from all of their employees to develop these new set of values.  This is great because it is great to try to crowdsource the best ideas of the company.  Also, making people feel included makes everyone happy.  But hopefully, after this warm fuzzy, when the doors are shut, most of this data will be thought of as secondary input to the equation.  Or, at best, verbiage to help appropriately spin the new values rolled out to the organization.


Company values are an interesting thing.  On the one hand, theoretically the values should represent the collective ideal of the employees.  It should represent what every employee aspires to be.  Does that mean that employees should be building the value system through concensus?  Or should senior leadership set the values and use that to drive employee behavior?

Let me tell you the answer: Values come from senior leadership.  This is because senior leadership absolutely must represent the values of the organization.  If you value ethical behavior, but the CEO is unethical, you are done.  If that is the case, values should be advocating unethical behavior.  Then the company will work in a way that reflects the CEO’s worldview.

If, during the poll, every employee working for an unethical CEO responds with “Be Ethical”, either the CEO should consider changing his worldview, or he should consider how his value system aligns with the company he is building.

If he likes to work 20 hours a day, hiring 9-to-5ers is going to make things difficult and stressful.  The organization needs to be aligned with its leader.  It is that simple.

Another problem with corporate values is that the risk of concensus building risks eliminating the uniqueness from the values of the organization.  A recent study by Booz Allen Hamilton indicated that 95% of North American companies include “be ethical”, 87% use some variant on “Commitment to Customers”, 81% “Commitment to Employees”, 79% “Teamwork and Trust”, and 77% use “Honesty”.  If I had to guess at the values that might be put forth in a group exercise, it seems reasonable that this is what the list would look like.

But here is the thing: That is “company values as competitive necessity”, not values as competitive advantage.  If you want to create a competitive advantage with your values, you have to zig where others zag.  Seth Goldstein did a post quite some time ago on his values and I have remembered it to this day (How ’bout that Seth!)  I don’t think it is perfect either, but that is the idea.  His values are different.  Reading them tells me what we are going to do differently if we accept his value system.  Reading “be ethical” doesn’t tell me how to be different.  One would hope that for humanity, ethical is step one.  I don’t think of that as a company value, I think of that as value as a human being.  People that act unethically can probably be kicked.  Just FYI.

Should values reflect the long term recipe for winning over the next century, even as the strategy of the business changes?  I say yes.

Keep watching, coming soon is my value system.  We are hard at work on how to win.

Let’s get those comments out there.  What do company values mean to you?

Update: I left the employ of AOL shortly before this post was made public.  This is not disparaging toward AOL and let me be clear that my use of “unethical” as an example was used not because AOL senior leadership had this value.  Quite the contrary, it is a preposterous value that no one has.  Tim is OK in my book.

One Response to “Corporate Values Should Not Be Set By The Corporation”

  1. liz Says:

    I am , along with many of my peers, are going to really study the corporate world this new year and ferret out the unethical ones, and boycott their products and refrain from investing with them in our IRAs, mutual funds, stocks, etc…it is just sickening to see the greed, and no amount of donations to charities will hide that, so these corporations need to wake up and realize the public isn’t stupid and the internet is chock full of info…