How to live company values authentically: a story of two firms

As humans, we each have a personal ethos that we live by—principles or values such as kindness, compassion, honesty, or perseverance. These inform our decisions and how we interact with those around us. The same is true of organisations.

Whether it’s a business, charity or social enterprise, every organisation is made up of people and their individual acts, all of which contribute to the organisational culture. Underpinning this culture are the organisation’s values: the central tenets or principles that inform the way in which decisions are made and business is transacted.

For organisations striving to use business as a force for good, it’s vital that all stakeholders understand what the firm really stands for. Values should not simply be lip service, or worse, contrived, but rather principles that genuinely guide action, represent the true nature of the firm, and transcend circumstance. To achieve something substantive and meaningful requires authenticity.

Over the last decade, Matt and I have been privileged to work with multiple enterprises and charities to help them define their core values and purpose. We spoke with two of those clients to discuss their experiences and find out what it has meant to them to put their values into practice since articulating them.

Uncovering the core

A few years ago, integrated technology specialists, Vanti, asked us to work with them on identifying their company values. Over the previous ten years, the firm had evolved from its original remit of Audio-Visual & IT consultancy to specialists in systems integration, with a growing focus on smart buildings. With further growth anticipated in the near future, Mike Brooman, Director and CEO of Vanti, felt it was time to express the company’s guiding principles.

We’d got to a point of hiring some of the wrong people. I’d read ‘From Good to Great’ by Jim Collins, and that’s where [our desire to define our values] came from. – Mike Brooman, CEO, Vanti

For Widgit, creators of symbols and software that help people read, understand and communicate in a range of contexts, the need to define their core values arose as the company was transitioning from a small, family-run firm to a professional company. After a period of time away from the business to recover from treatment for Acoustic Neuroma, Widgit’s CEO, Cate Rae, became aware that the company needed to invest in its people and its culture in order to establish a solid foundation on which to continue their journey.

When I came back I realised I’m not in the middle of anything. I could just take time to look at what was happening. Some things were being done really well. And then there were some fires that really needed attention…Our people genuinely cared about the company, but when they were disgruntled it was [because] something was going against what the company really was. So being able to articulate our values was important.
– Cate Rae, CEO, Widgit Software

Our first step in helping an organisation to identify their values is to gather input from as many individuals as possible. Inspired by the approach that IBM took in their ValuesJam, it’s an essential part of distilling what an organisation actually stands for, rather than simply what its leaders would like the values to be. In the case of both Widgit and Vanti, we surveyed every member of staff, and for Widgit we also contacted board members, partners, and long-standing customers to ask what they felt the company stood for.

Having collected the raw data, the next step is to sort through the responses with a group of people who epitomise the organisation and begin to identify themes. We then use a number of facilitation techniques to stimulate discussions around the emerging values. While the general categories tend to be uncontroversial, finding the right word or phrase to encapsulate and communicate each value can take considerable effort. Rather than try to achieve this in a single session, we recommend allowing time for reflection and gathering feedback before refining the values further.

An invitation for candour

When helping participants to distil their company values, one of the litmus tests we like to use is one proposed by Jim Collins: “Would you still want your organisation to hold this core value, even if at some point in time it became a competitive or strategic disadvantage?” The aim is to ensure that the chosen values genuinely reflect what the organisation stands for both now and in the future.

Perhaps an equally effective test is to observe how the rest of the organisation responds to the values. This was the case at IBM’s ValuesJam; while IBMers largely supported the proposed values, they also used the opportunity to call out discrepancies between what the company said it stood for and how it was actually behaving. Such was the strength of feeling that the then CEO, Sam Palmsiano, faced calls from members of his executive team to cancel the whole exercise. Fortunately, he refused. Palmsiano recognised that many of the criticisms were well founded and that the issues being raised provided valuable opportunities to realign day-to-day practices with IBM’s core values.

We can see some parallels between IBM’s ValuesJam and our clients’ experiences, albeit on a smaller scale. When Widgit’s leadership team shared the draft values with all members of staff, the response was positive but team members also raised a number of instances where it was felt the organisation was falling short.

When we articulated [Widgit’s values], we could see that when things had gone wrong, it was because we had gone against the values. Putting them down on paper was transformational. – Cate Rae, CEO, Widgit Software

For Vanti, the process of distilling the values was a positive experience that helped to define the company and clarify what it stands for. However, it too had its consequences: several members of staff chose to leave the business shortly thereafter, having realised it wasn’t the right place for them.

The values really managed to bridge [this] divide when we hired new people. It was a company defining piece of work…We’ve had a handful of challenges to the values over the years but they’ve stood the test of time.
– Mike Brooman, CEO, Vanti

Turning words into action

The crucial final step in defining a firm’s values is finding the form of words that feels meaningful, memorable and authentic to the organisation. Words can mean many different things to different people. The language you choose needs to truly reflect what your organisation believes and will stand by, as this is what will empower and inspire individuals to do the right thing for your company.

Vanti’s chosen values

At Vanti, the group settled on five core values: integrity, care, fun, mastery, and discovery. For each value, they also added an accompanying Slack icon and description that puts these terms into the Vanti context.

Widgit’s chosen values

The team at Widgit whittled their list down to three: integrity, kindness, and quality, and added a symbol and brief definition to assist with interpretation.

In catching up with both companies several years after we helped them to identify and express their values, it was clear that the values have served as an important touchstone, informing decision making, creating alignment and helping them to navigate growth.

Breaking the corporate mould

Kindness is not a value that you often see being espoused by profit-making businesses, but for Widgit it’s the most important of their core values.

I think that [kindness] gets the most attention…because it’s actually the hardest. And you have to always work for it…Kindness is probably the thing I’ve spoken most to [colleagues] about…And I think because we’ve had those conversations often and quite openly, [they] come along the journey of the value and then really, really get it.
— Cate Rae, CEO, Widgit Software

At Widgit, kindness goes far beyond treating colleagues with respect. It influences how customers are supported and how management decisions are made. It extends to drafting contracts to ensure fair compensation for suppliers and partners, and providing cost of living support to staff.

During the COVID-19 crisis, the team developed a Critical Care COVID-19 Communication Chart that was subsequently translated into over 60 languages and made available for free around the world. As a firm that always wants to help anyone for whom symbols can be life changing support, Widgit has a bursary scheme for parents and individuals who otherwise might not have the means to pay. Thanks to these acts of kindness, individuals have been able to express themselves fully to their families, teachers, support workers, or care team—sometimes for the very first time.

Kindness is the first value. It’s unusual for a corporate entity, but it’s part of our history. We see it as a strength, whereas often it’s seen as a business weakness…It is recognising that if you treat people well, they will treat you well in return. And treating people well is the right thing to do even if you don’t get anything in return. – Ben Stevenson, CTO, Widgit Software

In fact, the company has benefitted from placing kindness at the forefront of everything it does. The fact that they apply the value in everything they do has enabled Widgit to hire and retain talented individuals. In turn, these people contribute to the company, the product and the community of users, amplifying their positive impact on the world.

Standing up for what feels right

Whereas kindness is an unusual value in the corporate world, integrity is one we come across often. But what does acting with integrity look like in practice?

At Vanti, the emphasis is on being ethical and accountable in their dealings. In their own words, integrity is the opposite of “hang and bang”, “box shifting” or “stacking things high and selling things cheap”. Rather than focussing myopically on the terms of a contract, the team at Vanti partner with their clients to ensure they deliver an outstanding solution that actually meets the end users’ needs. It’s an uncommon approach in the industry, but one that leads to lasting relationships and has earned the company several industry awards.

Integrity comes up all of the time – we reference it in terms of ‘are we doing the right thing?’ – Mike Brooman, CEO, Vanti

At Widgit, integrity is about behaving with honesty and respect in everything they do. This includes encouraging people to embody their individuality, being honest about the journey to continually improve as a firm, and honouring commitments, such as keeping recruitment open until the advertised deadline to ensure everyone has opportunity to apply.

Integrity means we tell the truth and stand by our values. You should never find yourself saying one thing to somebody and something different to somebody else, essentially…Honesty and fairness are quite important bits within our version of integrity.
— Cate Rae, CEO, Widgit Software

Setting a high bar

While integrity reflects Vanti’s focus on delighting their customers, mastery expresses the value people find in craftsmanship and the sense of achievement that comes from building something well. Upholding this value means empowering staff to prioritise quality and excellence, even if doing otherwise might deliver results more quickly.

At Widgit, quality reflects a similar sentiment:

Because a lot of our staff are design-focussed, they want to see that we care about building a professional product. They want to be part of a company that’s producing something that is doing good, but also something that is high quality. – Ben Stevenson, CTO, Widgit Software

The benefits to the business of embracing these values may seem obvious: employee satisfaction directly impacts retention, while building things well makes them more maintainable in the long run. However, all too often in software development or construction, a short-term focus on speed and profit means that quality, craftsmanship, and mastery fall by the wayside. To be upheld effectively, values need to resonate throughout your organisation, beginning with the individuals who form it.

Creating a virtuous circle

Both Widgit and Vanti have experienced significant change and fast growth since we worked with them to define their values, yet those values remain as strong as ever. This is at least in part because of the emphasis each company places on values when recruiting new staff.

Values really underpin our recruitment. We look for values before skill. In terms of long-term benefit, it’s dramatic – not that we have yes men and women, but people who add to the values. It started us on our journey around diversity and inclusion – you can live our values without fitting a Vanti mould.
– Mike Brooman, CEO, Vanti

Hand-in-hand with this is the effort they put into sharing and championing their values. At Vanti, this includes team days, charitable activities, and a host of resources to promote a positive working culture. At Widgit, vouchers for a duvet day and a social committee whose remit is togetherness are just some of the ways the company has sought to look after its staff through the COVID-19 pandemic.

We need to make sure that as the company grows, the values trickle through to all the decisions that are made. I want to make sure a manager would make the right decision if someone went to them rather than me.
– Cate Rae, CEO, Widgit Software

While both organisations remain upfront that their journeys are a work in progress, their values form a core part of their commitment to doing business differently. By weaving values into everything and ensuring they genuinely matter to the organisation and its people, Widgit and Vanti’s values continue to serve as a compass for strategies, actions and culture. They guide the way the business operates, including in the face of challenges, and provide a framework for decision making at all levels of the firm.

Article by

Debbie Stocker

Debbie is director of Stocker Partnership, a strategy and innovation consultancy. She's a great facilitator, researcher and strategist. With an approach that is both creative and methodical, Debbie combines her expertise in psychology with a strong commercial focus. Her signature strengths include kindness and a love of learning. She also line manages the office dog. More about us

Related Content

Share Article