Look at your ‘core values’ once more for urgent rework

In much of my management consulting I help organisations clarify their values, and this is often the most interesting and challenging aspect of my work.

Almost all my clients have an existing bundle of “core values” (I’ve never seen the need for the “core”), but few pay much attention to them — even if they can remember what some or occasionally all of them are.

Visions and missions also earn limited ongoing attention from most leaders, but when it comes to values many run out of energy altogether.

A common challenge with values is that there are too many, making it hard to keep them in mind. I recommend a maximum of five, fewer if possible, so they can more readily be recalled and people can easily focus on them.

Anyway, most values relate to each other, so in talking about one — assuming, that is, they are indeed talked about— it is easy to refer to others that didn’t make the cut. (The numbers business is why I am concerned that our Constitution lists 18 values, hardly any of which Kenyans can identify.)

Another challenge is that an organisation’s selected values are likely to appear in random order, without a flow or a storyline. So I prefer punchy phrases to single words, and my favourite expressions are those in Centum’s “Golden Rules”.

Here are some from their list, to give you a flavour: “We escalate the solution, never the problem”; “A bad decision is better than indecision”; and “We do not email where a conversation would do”.

Among values we often see “professionalism”, “teamwork” and “integrity”, each of which includes many component values. So, while we understand what being “professional” means I feel it’s rather lazy to just throw out this word without identifying which elements within it are of the greatest significance to one’s environment.

Similarly with teamwork. It’s just too general, too vague. Which aspects of teamwork does the organisation already live well, that it must hold on to? Which ones are more aspirational and must be worked on, hence also qualifying for consideration?

Is it trust (it often is) — the need to be trustworthy and hence trusted? Collaboration? Being supportive of one another? Listening openly? Engaging constructively? Displaying low but healthy egos? Select whichever of these is the most relevant and powerful, knowing the others are implied.

These days, everyone feels they must list integrity as one of their values —otherwise people will imagine you don’t care about honesty or fairness, compliance or good governance.

But as one participant in a values review pointed out to his group recently, surely integrity should be taken for granted without having to shout about it. And anyway, because the “I” word is so overused, isn’t it better to pluck out a specific component and find a more original and hence powerful way of expressing the concept?

Along with Integrity, other “I” words find their way into the lists, Innovative, Inclusive and Impactful among them. “R” words are popular too, including Respectful, Responsible, Reliable and Responsive — interestingly complementary and also explanatory of one another.

Speaking of first letters, wordsmiths like me enjoy arranging values so that their opening letters themselves form a word — which means finding a good mix of ones that begin with both vowels and consonants. And another way of assisting the process is to have all the values start with the same letter.

The conversations generated around selecting and expressing values are themselves helpful, providing material to share with others subsequently.

But the process must go beyond the selecting and sharing to the living. Which ones should be celebrated because they are strong?

Which ones are in less good shape and what attitudes and behaviours must change, so as to close the gap between the actual and the aspirational?

Finally, are the leaders role models for the values?

And how is everyone encouraged to embrace the values by recognising and rewarding them for so doing, while helping those who do not to change?

These are the conversations we need to have… at all levels and not least at the national one.

Watch this space for more on that.

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