When I started my career fifteen years ago at American Express, the New York headquartered company defined pre-requisites to my entry, across the Pacific, at their Sydney operations. These included education levels and grades, language skills, personal qualities, references, perceived competence and an expressed preference for five years of professional experience – which my ‘just had lunch with my mates at the University canteen’ curriculum vitae impossibly could not reflect. Armed with ambition and shifting confidence after three rounds of interrogative interviews, I luckily landed the role that kick-started my five year career at the company.
During my tenure, I met Chief Executive Officers, Harvey Golub and Kenneth Chenault. I also had the fortune to directly report into Mira Mikosic, the company’s inspiring former Vice President of International Brand Advertising and worked within John Steward’s group, American Express’ current Executive Vice President of World Markets for it’s Cards business, whom I’ve shared conversations with at the Australian office, outside the company’s headquarters on Vesey Street in New York as well as recently at a pub in Chelsea, London, on a cold English evening.
In and importantly, out of the office, these American Express leaders are groomed to live ‘the blue box values’.
Beyond their individual smarts, the common thread that binds these American Express leaders is that they individually champion, share and embody the company’s shared cultural norms and principles, as defined within American Express’ Blue Box Values:
• Customer Commitment – We develop relationships that make a positive difference in our customers’ lives.
• Quality – We provide outstanding products and unsurpassed service that, together, deliver premium value to our customers.
• Integrity – We uphold the highest standards of integrity in all of our actions.
• Teamwork – We work together, across boundaries, to meet the needs of our customers and to help the company win.
• Respect for People – We value our people, encourage their development and reward their performance.
• Good Citizenship – We are good citizens in the communities in which we live and work.
• A Will to Win – We exhibit a strong will to win in the marketplace and in every aspect of our business.
• Personal Accountability – We are personally accountable for delivering on our commitments.
My judgment of the above mentioned American Express leaders are subjective but can be qualitatively validated because experts believe that when corporate values are well-established and bred within a company culture, they permeate and forcibly impress themselves to the lowest levels, which is where I hierarchically sat, at Band 25, within American Express’ ranking system.
When walking the hallways of American Express, attending team and partner meetings, company town halls, conference calls and creating customer communications, the Blue Box-guided culture was alive. I worked within a team that embodied the Blue Box values, with other departments that displayed them and leaders who evangelized and personified them, in and outside of the office.
With the thundering collapse of News of The World, Barings Bank, Lehman Brothers, Enron and Arthur Andersen, today is the day you should define the values of your company.
How you operate, the level of integrity that must permeate across your organisation as well as the words, actions and interactions you will not tolerate.
Company values are not a statement of mission or commercial vision. They are priceless words, becoming the soul and force field of your business, preserving and protecting it from external and internal agents capable of compromising its survival and reputation.
When wilfully and forcibly implemented into a company culture, values have extraordinary democratic benefits including increased employee alignment, motivation, loyalty, efficiency, cohesiveness and consistency of interpretation. Zero or weak implementation of values result in shifting integrity benchmarks, exposing organisations to higher political chess-playing and integrity management challenges, raising bureaucratic, operational, human resource, ombudsperson, legal and arbitration costs.
Management consultancy firm Accenture, which has evolved since its troubled earlier days attached to Arthur Andersen, centres its corporate values around stewardship and “fulfilling our obligation of building a better, stronger and more durable company for future generations, protecting the Accenture brand, meeting our commitments to stakeholders, acting with an owner mentality, developing our people and helping improve communities and the global environment”.
Well-loved food company Whole Foods believes that ‘values are the soul of the company’ and that their values “do not change from time to time, situation to situation or person to person, but rather they are the underpinning of our company culture… they transcend our size and our growth rate… and by maintaining these core values, regardless of how large a company Whole Foods Market becomes, we can preserve what has always been special about our company”.
Some of Whole Foods brand-defining values include its dedication to:
- Selling the highest quality natural and organic products available.
- Supporting team member happiness and excellence.
- Creating ongoing win-win partnerships with our suppliers.
- Passion for food.
- We appreciate and celebrate the difference natural and organic products can make in the quality of one’s life.
- We are buying agents for our customers and not the selling agents for the manufacturers.
- We can generate greater appreciation and loyalty from all of our stakeholders by educating them about natural and organic foods, health, nutrition and the environment.
- We value retail experiments. Friendly competition within the company helps us to continually improve our stores. We constantly innovate and raise our retail standards and are not afraid to try new ideas and concepts.
- We create store environments that are inviting and fun, and reflect the communities they serve. We want our stores to become community meeting places where our customers meet their friends and make new ones.
- We believe knowledge is power and we support our Team Members’ right to access information that impacts their jobs. Our books are open to our Team Members, including our annual individual compensation report. We also recognise everyone’s right to be listened to and heard regardless of their point of view.
- We recognise there is a community of interest among all of our stakeholders. There are no entitlements; we share together in our collective fate. To that end we have a salary cap that limits the compensation (wages plus profit incentive bonuses) of any Team Member to nineteen times the average total compensation of all full-time Team Members in the company.
- We respect our environment and recycle, reuse, and reduce our waste wherever and whenever we can.
- We give a minimum of 5% of our profits every year to a wide variety of community and non-profit organisations.
- Our trade partners are our allies in serving our stakeholders. We treat them with respect, fairness and integrity at all times and expect the same in return.
- We are committed to honesty, timeliness and clarity in communicating with our suppliers and we expect the same in return.
- We seek to create transparency from “farm to fork” with respect to production, planning, sourcing, ingredients, product safety and efficacy in order to bring to market the safest highest quality products available. We work with our supplier partners in eliminating all unnecessary production and distribution costs to help ensure the best possible price.
Global giant Kellogg’s has boxed its company values at the heart of its brand:
- Show respect for and value all individuals for their diverse backgrounds, experience, styles, approaches and ideas.
- Speak positively and supportively about team members when apart.
- Assume positive intent.
- Focus on finding solutions and achieving results, rather than making excuses or placing blame.
- Actively engage in discussions and support decisions once they are made.
- Involve others in decisions and plans that affect them.
- Keep promises and commitments made to others.
- Personally commit to the success and well being of team-mates.
- Aggressively promote and protect our reputation.
- We have the humility and hunger to learn.
- Display openness and curiosity to learn from anyone, anywhere.
- Solicit and provide honest feedback without regard to position.
- Admit our mistakes and learn from them.
- Never underestimate our competition.
- We love success.
- Achieve results and celebrate when we do.
- Help people to be their best by providing coaching and feedback.
- Make people feel valued and appreciated.
- Make the tough calls.
- We strive for simplicity.
- Stop processes, procedures and activities that slow us down or do not add value.
- Deal with people and issues directly and avoid hidden agendas.
- Prize results over form.
Upon constructing new company values, engage your business partners, trusted advisors and research the values of brands you respect. Then, build a strategic vision and internally engage team members till the final words of your company values come to life.
Key to success is top-management commitment to the values. This commitment must be verbal as well as demonstrative and behavioural. The CEO and business leaders must embody those values and act as key catalysts. In certain cases, you may even need to adjust or modify your organisation to support this cultural change. For example, if one of your new values is to create a workplace environment that is appreciative and supportive of the family unit, then you must adjust your company policies to accommodate flexi-hours, late-start and early-departure times, as well as the provision of benefits such as child-minding facilities.
One of the many upsides of this value may be longer employee tenure. Aspiring, new and tenured parents may feel that your values and policies match their lives and life goals and see no viable reason to explore employment alternatives, thus supporting employee retention and allowing you to bottle and cork their trusted skills, experience, connections and knowledge to further advance your company.
As your individual values have far-reaching impact, you must carefully measure your words, so they are consistent with the daily realities of what your company can operationally deliver and what your team members must live up to.
An important aspect also is to socialize all newcomers to your company values, while potential or past internal deviants who may not fit into your new culture, must be forewarned and coached intensively.
As your values gain traction and clout, it is always important to evaluate and evolve them. Your business is not static and so there is no concrete reason, other than sentimentality, as to why your values should be static. Additionally, when creating performance appraisal metrics, aspects of your company values should be weaved in so team members understand the inseparable link between their individual performance and commitment to the values and the company’s collaborative success.
Your company values are a source of pride.
It is the flag of words that waves proudly as your ship sails and is also the lifeboat in harsher times that pulls the collective together, when external or internal elements compromise your company’s future. It is a reference tool for attracting talent and retaining employees who rest their aspirations, ambitions, livelihood and often, happiness in your company.
Founded on 1 October 1843, News Of The World came crashing down on 10 July 2011 with the phone hacking scandal.
Employing over 22,000 employees with a reported revenue of US$101 billion in 2001, Enron leadership pursued a path of inflated and wholly deceptive accounting fraud, leading to its collapse as well as the demise of one of the world’s ‘Big 5’ accounting firms, Arthur Andersen, which was found guilty of fraudulent auditing.
Founded hundreds of years ago in 1762, Barings Bank was the oldest merchant bank in London. Operating through the Napoleonic Wars, the bank, which Her Majesty The Queen of England was a client, collapsed in 1995 with a US$1.3 billion loss caused by speculative, deceptive, glory and greed-fuelled investing by Nick Leeson, thousands of miles away in Singapore. As a result, in 1995, the former billion-dollar company collapsed and was sold to Dutch Bank ING for £1.
History teaches us lessons. Often, in bold numbers and figures, without regard for the dreams, aspirations, good intent and collective sweat of one and many whom helped endure a brand.
Invest time today into writing your company’s values then pour your energy into embedding and enforcing an inspiring culture. Build that bright lighthouse of innovation which valuable and value-multiplying talent competitively swim towards, ambitiously experiment within, thrive and shine.
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