Leaders love to talk about values…we really do! We put them in our corporate strategies, we put them on the wall, on flyers, on the side of buses, in lifts, on payslips, you get the idea, they go everywhere; but it’s the actions of employees that speak far louder than these words.
Values can help to distinguish your organisation’s identity, improve recruitment and retention, drive behaviour and culture change, help in individual and organisational decision making and will ultimately drive successful outcomes.
Identity is important especially in the public sector, where it is often harder to tell one organisation’s vision or values from another. Values should be, at their best, the abstract ideals that are at the core of the organisation, that employees and customers hold you to account for and that represent the essence of your business. The best companies should be identifiable by their values in their dealings with you as an employee and there is no shortcut to shaping them; and leaders need to be brave, to ensure they don’t get diluted with too much corporate polishing. Like a diamond, it is the rough edges that give values their shine and sparkle to employees.
Recruitment and retention of top talent is a challenge in the public sector and values should become one of your primary r&r tools; this requires them to be more than just a few statements but to be embedded into process and practice. Generally, those of us that work in the local government or other public sector services do so because of the ‘ethos’ of public service and helping people is aligned to our personal values. However, organisations still need to define their brand; what is unique about them, why should an individual choose to work there or choose to stay working in the organisation. We have a very unique selling point in the public sector, but we don’t often shout about it, simply, what makes our employees proud to work in our particular part of the public sector?
Behaviour and culture change is the challenge of getting a large number of employees or customers to behave or act differently, and values are a vital anchor for that. The behaviours or actions you are seeking to cultivate shouldn’t move too far away from that anchor and give you a point to oscillate around and a common language. In the public sector, we are often trying to change how customers engage or access services, values give us something to equally hold them to account for. Values are an important foundation for any culture change or transformation programme.
Good decision making can be driven by a company’s values. In the same way parents will seek to instil core values into children, which they will return to when making judgements and decisions, often about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, organisations need to spend time and effort instilling values into an organisation and its employees. Using the parent/child analogy, it takes more than giving a child a poster with an explanation of right and wrong for them to drive behaviour (if only it was that simple!) – and the same is true of employees.
Values need to be nurtured and be built into all policy and decision-making processes, both formally and informally. What is more important however, is how an organisation holds a mirror up to itself and its values and how people are treated if they act outside those values; trust can be built around values that will drive successful outcomes.
At West Midlands Employers (WME) we spent time earlier this year really considering what it meant for our employees to work here and what they held true. All employees were asked to participate in surveys and workshops and they were central to shaping how it ‘felt’ to work here and what they wanted our customers to ‘feel’ when dealing with us. It was an energising exercise and the employees were central to agreeing our new values – they are ‘in their words’ and we are at the start of a journey for us to embed them in all we do.
Organisational values represent a company’s heart – at WME, they literally represent our heart: I HEART is our motto and you hear the team use it regularly in all situations (including in the pub after work...).
We launched them in May this year and try to embody them in all we do as WME. We ask our client base about them, we measure our success by how often people see us display those values and we recruit people to fit with them. This is our company’s value that we can’t put a value on and we believe it will be our competitive edge.
Rebecca Davis is chief executive of West Midlands Employers