Without Clear Values, You Are Probably Losing Business


Can everyone in your organization explain each of the values and how they personally act on them? They can at companies like Disney, Starbucks, Southwest, McDonalds and Google – all listed in the top 15 of the most admired companies.

There is a direct relationship between clear values and success in terms of employee retention, customer loyalty, and long-term profitability.

When organizations don’t articulate clear values, individuals are left to their own devices to determine which values should guide them.

Consider the disastrous consequences of the Costa Concordia shipwreck where safety did not guide decision-making. Unfortunately, we forget the lessons of these major disasters all too quickly.

However, the same issues play out everyday in less obvious ways. In the long run, the accumulative effect significantly impacts the bottom-line.

Why a lack of clear values led me to fire my tree service company.

The Business Case for ValuesOur fruit trees are sprayed three times during the summer. One day the tree service showed up while my teenage son was mowing the lawn. They were both still there as I returned from work.

The man had aimed his sprayer at the apple tree, but it was a windy day, and the spray was blowing directly toward my son. I jumped out of my car and ran to the man yelling, “Watch out! Your spray is blowing on that boy!”

“I know,” he replied in a reassuring voice. “I asked him, and he said he didn’t mind.” – The boy might not have minded, but his mother sure did!

The nice gentleman spraying my son with chemicals was guided by his personal values of courtesy. He had quite nicely asked my son whether he minded, and he was as nice as could be when he explained to me that there was no problem.

Because the company had not clearly articulated and communicated safety as guiding values to their employees, they lost my business.

Choose the right values.

The values you choose need to support your team’s mission.
– If your team is responsible for financial reporting, accuracy needs to be a core value.
– If your team is responsible for product development, innovation and creativity need to be core values.
– If your team operates a cruise ship, safety needs to be a core value.

Don’t wait for senior leadership.

If you are a team leader, you must help your team translate the company values into team values in order to make them actionable. I don’t want to let senior leadership off the hook, but if the company hasn’t articulated values, it’s not an excuse to wait. Go ahead and create your own team values.

  1. Identify the values needed to support your team’s purpose. Don’t assume that any are understood. If integrity or ethics are important, it needs to be listed.
  2.  Don’t choose more values than people can easily remember. You don’t need to list each person’s personal values. As long as there are no values conflicts, they can still act on them. Focus on the values that are the key drivers to accomplish your mission.
  3.  Communicate them clearly and frequently so everyone knows what they are. Translate them into behaviors, not simply a list of words. Describing behavioral examples helps people understand what they look like when they are lived.
  4.  As a leader, model the values consistently. People watch what you do more closely than they listen to what you say.
  5.  Put processes in place to monitor and support the values being lived on a day-by-day basis.

Here’s how the Customer Relations Team at Zappos keeps their values alive.



19 comments to Without Clear Values, You Are Probably Losing Business

  • Wow, this is nice work, Jesse, and I love the inclusion of the Zappos video. I also really appreciate your point that waiting for senior management isn’t necessarily the best thing. Teams can be powerfully self-supporting, and sometimes need to take the bull by the horns. Great post. Thanks!

    • Thanks Dan. I agree there is a lot of power when teams become self-supporting. It helps to think about what is your sphere of influence, and then within that sphere, assume responsibility to take proactive action. Thanks for highlighting this important point. Always great to see you here.

  • I too love the Zappos video because it so vividly expresses the power of articulating company values through the staff behaviors. It costs so little to do it this way relative to the ‘ROI’ it brings.

    • Excellent point, Alan. And when you watch the Zappos videos you see real employees, not paid professionals, who are having a great time and, by the way, have a personal stake in the success of the company.

  • Beth Wilkinson

    As a consumer I am right there with you. I will not do business with companies that don’t have values that are similar to mine. Why would we think it should be any different in the organizations we work in? If the values are not defined, how can we empower our customer base to make those decisions. Great insight, and thank you for sharing.

    Leading by values,

    • Great point, Beth. Most of us are both customers and employees at various times. When employees either do not understand the values or are not empowered to act on them, we usually take our business elsewhere. Why not take what we understand as customers to our workplaces?

  • David Greer

    Hi Jesse,

    Thanks for your post. I liked the way you made it real by sharing the story about your tree service and your son.

    The Zappos video is powerful to me for a few reasons:

    1. Senior management’s commitment, time, and attention to create the ten core values.
    2. The creation of a reward program around the ten core values.
    3. And the fact that it is a peer-based program – you have to earn the rewards for each core value from your coworkers.

    Clear vision, values, and leadership.



    • Thanks, David. I didn’t mention that I was so shocked at what I saw that I didn’t even turn off the motor before I jumped out of my car to run to the tree sprayer. He probably thought I was just another over-protective mother because he just did not see it as a safety issue. If the company had articulated their values, described behaviorally what it looked like, and engaged other employees in identifying examples of the values in action, he would have understood the importance and might even have thought to do extra things like knock on my door and suggest I shut the house windows and pick up toys in the yard and move them to the other side of the house.

      In terms of Zappos, I think you’ve hit on the two most important elements that make it work: senior management commitment is demonstrated and rewards are managed by peers. I think it’s also noteworthy how they empower their employees to be ambassadors for the company. If you are shopping for shoes at Zappos, you can watch videos of employees demonstrating the shoes. They are clearly not professional actors but are obviously having a great time doing it. Each person uses their own words and their own personality shines through.

  • Jesse – Agree the inclusion of the Zappos video was outstanding. Having written on the importance of core values not only for organizations, but individuals is where I begin with many of my clients.

    Willy nilly behaviors create no results or results that are counterproductive to the organization’s and individual’s desired results.

    Leanne Hoagland-Smith

    • Hi Leanne, Love that: Willy nilly behaviors create no results…. or results that are counterproductive.
      I agree it really helps to see what it looks like in action in real companies, otherwise it can sound all to theoretical. Thanks for adding to the conversation!

  • Jesse – Nice post. (that’s why I re-tweeted it as soon as I read it).

    I particularly loved the story of the guy spraying trees. It is a good example of how someone or some organization could be adhering to a perfectly legitimate value like courtesy and miss a more important value. Thanks.


    • Thank you, Rick. My first reaction was the typical customer reaction of dismay and anger. I think the issue here ties closely to the work you do on organizational change, as I don’t believe there would have been any resistance on this man’s part if he been able to see a clear relationship between managing the direction of his straying and his personal values.

  • Great column! When an organization is living their core values, it is like watching a sports team or a great band that is in “the zone.” Sadly, many organizations do such a poor job of selecting (their actually recognizing already held) core values and living those values that the subject has become a resource for Dilbert cartoons. Kudo’s to organizations like Zappos that “get it” and to you for empasizing the importance of values when organizations effectively recognize their true core values and actually use them as their GPS to guide critical decisions

    • It does seem fodder for Dilbert. It’s a mystery because it is so obvious that the companies that “get it” are the ones are the most successful over the long-term. When it’s working, it really does feel like being in “the zone.” Thanks for that adding to the conversation, Toby.

  • I love the way you frame this. It is a great example of the gestalt concept of multiple realities. My training in gestalt emphasized developing the skill of seeing the world through the eyes of the others since their actions usually make sense in their eyes. Easy to agree with, but I find it is hard to put that generosity of spirit into practice. Congratulations on demonstrating that skill.

    BTW, I got a kick out of the typo in your comment “the direction of his straying and his personal values.” Ah yes, my downfall as well.

    • Thanks for the gestalt perspective. I appreciate it. And also thanks for catching my typo. I got a laugh out of that one. Definition of a Freudian slip: if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.

  • i don’t think i’d ever heard that Freudian slip. Great way to start my day. Thanks.

  • Greg Bakker

    Thanks for the great post. After several rounds of consultation, our church has just rolled out our six core values. It is still a challenge to convince everyone that we need core values. Your story about your tree service is a helpful reminder why our organisation needs a clear set of core values.

    Thank you also for including the Zippo clip. I really like the idea of a peer administered reward scheme.

    • Hi Greg, I’m always surprised at how many non-profits and faith-based organizations don’t see the importance of articulating their values. We see over and over again the dangers of assuming the values are inherent and understood. The challenge for your church now will be to ensure they are lived. Here are some suggestions for keeping them alive:
      1. Put it on the agenda at every boards meeting – 2 minutes: What example did anyone see of how the values are being lived
      2. Communicate to the administrative director that you expect staff to be living the values. Ask him or her to provide the board with a plan for communication and accountability, and to provide the board with examples of how staff are living the values.
      3. Include them in sermons. Relate them to the tenents of your faith.
      4. Include stories of how they are being lived in newsletters.
      These are just a few suggestions to get you thinking. What’s important is not just what they say, but also how they are communicated and what processes are set up to ensure they are lived.

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