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Evolution of Values Adapt

The evolution of values: recalibrating your organization’s true north

By Liz Corcoran / July 16, 2018

Benjamin Franklin once said, “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.”

Part of why I love working in organizational development is the strategic approach to change.

While some may choose to see change as a “necessary evil” for growth, I believe it should be welcomed and celebrated for its transformative power in strengthening an organization.

That’s why I was excited to learn that Sprout’s leadership team was looking to revisit and reevaluate our company’s core values. While they’d found no fault in the current iteration, they felt that our values needed to evolve to accurately represent who we are as an organization.

With the rapid growth we’d experienced over the last several years – including a significant acquisition – we simply weren’t the same company we’d been five years ago. And while this growth had been predominantly positive, it did come with some challenges. Not only had it added to our company’s numbers, but it also added to – and somewhat complicated – our culture and identity.

Culture is not something Sprout takes lightly. Edgar Schein, former MIT professor and a notable scholar in the field of organizational development, asserts that in order for culture to be most effective it must be represented through the shared norms and expectations within a group, permeate and resonate across multiple levels of an organization, and endure even in the most challenging of times.

Additionally, when closely aligned with an organization’s strategy, a strong culture drives many positive organizational outcomes. Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus James L. Heskett, asserts that “as much as half of the difference in operating profit between organizations can be attributed to effective cultures.”

To ensure we were putting the necessary time and attention into strengthening our culture, we started at its very foundation: our core values.

This is easier said than done.

How do you attempt to change your foundation without breaking what you’ve already built, or risking further division?

Over the years I’ve had the privilege to help several organizations develop their company values, and each time the approach has been a little bit different.

I was eager to take what I’d gathered as the most successful elements of each experience, and apply them to this project. While my learnings were abundant and complex, I was able to narrow down what I believe to be the three most crucial components of a successful values refresh project:

  1. Identification
  2. Inclusion
  3. Integration

Identification

To help shape and drive any effective change within your organization, you first need to identify a catalyst.

There’s no shortage of research and reasoning in favor of establishing core values for your company, but there’s far less discussion around when and why it may be time to reevaluate them.

For Sprout, it was because we’d grown so quickly. We knew that because our company itself had changed so much, our values would need to as well.

But growth as a result of a merger or acquisition isn’t the only reason to reevaluate your values.

Any rapid change within an organization can create the need for a refresh, as well as a disconnect between what the values state and one’s actual culture.

Disconnects can happen due to a multitude of factors including, but not limited to: values established without the input of employees, failure to adequately communicate values, lack of leadership support and adoption, and failure to integrate values into the collective thoughts, words and actions of an organization.

If you suspect your organization is experiencing a disconnect between core values and behavior/output, you may have veered off course somewhere in the initial process of establishing/integrating your company’s values.

The good news is that there’s always an opportunity to revisit that process and get it right this time around.

Inclusion

One of the biggest variances I’ve witnessed in my experience with organizational change management is in who’s included in the process.

For some organizations, it’s a top-down process where senior leadership dictates the values. After all, they’re the closest to the company vision and mission.

But is that enough?

Research from Gallup has found that only 27% of employees in the U.S. believe in their company’s values.

The report states, “Too often, leaders carefully select values that define their ideal culture, but these values fail to resonate with employees and influence the way work gets done.”

The problem with a top-down approach is that it often excludes an important voice from the conversation: your employees. It’s critical to leverage employees to help surface the values that are truly important because they’re the pulse of the company. They should be the ones driving these conversations.

Keep in mind: This process still needs structure. You want everyone to have some level of say, but it can’t be a free-for-all with 500+ cooks in the proverbial kitchen. This is why a dedicated team of stakeholders is an invaluable asset to the process.

Whether it’s by volunteer or appointment, you may want to assemble a diverse and representative group of employees responsible for spearheading and managing the collection and distillation of employee feedback.

I’ve found the best way is to start wide. Consider a broadly-distributed company survey to give everyone a voice, and begin identifying common themes and shared experiences. At Sprout we started with a survey, then moved into smaller focus groups to dive a bit deeper into some of the topics that emerged from the survey results.

The simple act of involving employees from the get-go goes a long way in getting your people on board with what you’ve created, and why. “Our Values” actually feel like our values. And not only do they feel more authentic and representative, but they become more unique to you as a company.

Many organizations miss this crucial component of core values: your values are who you are as a company. They’re what differentiate you from others offering similar products or services. Without the inclusion of your employees, your values run the risk of being too generic. As the founder and president of the management consultancy Table Group, Patrick M. Lencioni, puts it, “Cookie-cutter values don’t set a company apart from competitors; they make it fade into the crowd.”

But the process doesn’t end with employees.

While it’s important that values are informed by the people in your organization, it’s the responsibility of senior leadership to shape and refine along the way and to be fully aligned behind the final version.

Employee input helps keep the values authentic, but it’s the executive leaders’ point of view that often adds a necessary level of aspiration. After all, it’s their job to maintain a certain vision for the future of the organization, so they may choose to include language aimed at inspiring and encouraging the company to the next level.

But for these aspirational values to actually make an impact on your org, you have to nail their integration.

Integration

In my experience, this is most often the part where organizations fall short. The process may begin with identifying the need and including the broader organization, but it isn’t fully complete until steps are taken to lift the words off the page and actually put them into action.

To do this, you’ve got to start with a good communication plan. You don’t want to spend all of this time doing all of this work only to quietly update a page on your internal wiki or dashboard. Orchestrate some type of reveal. Present the refreshed values at a company-wide meeting. Unveil a piece of office artwork that incorporates them. It’s only a hollow showing if you don’t follow it up with true integration.

The point is to make sure the entire organization knows you care about them deeply, and are invested in the company’s culture. When you demonstrate excitement and enthusiasm around these new values, your employees will follow suit.

Once a company has rolled out the red carpet for their new values, it needs to begin weaving them into the very fabric of the organization. Leaders should start using them as a filter for every process and practice in the company – asking themselves in every situation, “does this align with our core values?”

And they shouldn’t just serve as a guidepost for leadership, but for every employee in the organization. We already know leaders of busy, growing companies don’t necessarily have a hand in every single day-to-day decision. But values can be present in the room even when executives can’t.

Every action and experience in the organization should reflect these values, as well. For example when interviewing potential new hires, they should provide a framework for evaluation. We should abandon the internal question of whether or not someone is a good “culture fit.” Instead, focus on how they might already be living our values or add to what we’ve established.

Recognizing employees who consistently live by your company’s values is another powerful tactic for reinforcement and integration.

It will take time for an entire organization to internalize new values and begin living them organically day in and day out. This slow process can be discouraging so it’s important for companies to stay consistent and intentional.

Core values are the heart of an organization and these days more and more people want businesses to be thoughtful and strategic when it comes to culture. So maybe that means it’s time to reevaluate what matters most to your company. Your entire company – not just those at the top. And consider whether or not those beliefs align with your behaviors.

If they don’t, don’t be afraid to make a change.

Liz Corcoran

Liz Corcoran

Liz is the Director of Organizational Development at Sprout Social. In her role, Liz is focused on the development of both the organization and its employees through culture initiatives, education and coaching. Outside of work you can find Liz traveling with her husband, or attempting to renovate her new, old house.
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