The wrong way to approach values is obvious: You've seen the movie Office Space when the boss calls everyone together to unveil a new banner on the wall asking, "Is This Good for the Company?" As far as that value exercise goes, everyone looks at the banner, but that's about it. The "right" approach requires more nuance.
The "right" approach requires more nuance.
Our company just welcomed five corporate cultures under its single umbrella. After nearly three decades of working alongside the company's founders, most people could articulate our values very well. Only when our newly incorporated team members asked us to point to behaviors demonstrating how we live out those values in practice did we realize that we couldn't point to anything concrete enough for them to "get it." Employees want employers to represent their ethics and values to stay engaged. We knew we needed to fix this.
Intentional values prevent misalignment around company non-negotiables and can guide employee action and collaboration in the right direction. Still, defining and aligning the various departments of a company around those core values is more complex than it sounds; the task is even more challenging when merging multiple companies.
Over-communicate, then communicate again
Part of my work in M&A is ensuring that our people's experiences with the company are consistent. If I visited one of our offices in Australia or Japan, they would feel like part of the same world. Most of that came through working alongside the company's founders and absorbing their approach to making decisions by osmosis. Sure, we articulated our values in onboarding materials. We offered some swag and other replicated forms of them in our recognition programs. Still, we mostly took that tacit learning from the company's culture carriers for granted and developed little else to reference our values in action beyond that.
This five-company merger was an "ah ha!" moment that made us reconsider how we communicated our values, and they still hold up after all this time. Without clear communication and explicit practical applications, it would be only natural that people bring their old ways of operating into a new company, even without realizing it. If we want to carry values forward as we merge companies or aim to break down silos, we need to embed them across the employee journey at every touch point in both words and action.
Consider values in the hiring experience — how we describe the position in the job post and our interview questions for potential candidates. If one of our stated values is collaboration, we might ask them to describe when they successfully collaborated on a project and, more importantly, when it wasn't. Seek to hire people who understand and appreciate those intrinsic values and spend time discussing them in all onboarding sessions globally. People can be talented but not always aligned, so figure out what's non-negotiable and ask questions about what matters to them, and you'll soon see if they "get it."
Live, not laminate
It takes more than coffee mugs, posters and pieces of flair to align everyone around a company's values: We need to be able to attribute behaviors to them. If a company says they're "people-centric," it should showcase this in an actionable way — performance evaluations that allow employees to tell their own stories rather than their performance review happening to them; benefits that provide coverage for the whole family; meetings that regularly represent that value as a theme or recognize someone who exemplifies them. At our company, we have a Kudos chat where, every week, people acknowledge when they have observed someone's behavior that directly aligns with our values.
Leaders must ensure people live, feel and see their company values repeatedly. In a 2022 survey of U.S. and U.K. employees, respondents were likelier to stay with an employer whose values align with theirs. Still, almost half would consider leaving a company if its leadership fails to act by them.
When we give people examples of living our values, they have more reasons to discuss them. Over time, stories get retold and cement themselves into company lore. When a customer attempted to return two tires to the local Nordstrom retailer in Fairbanks, Alaska, the clerk called, researched tire prices and processed the refund despite Nordstrom never selling tires. Nordstrom's legendary tire story demonstrates the brand's dedication to living its value of customer service.
Evaluate and evolve
After almost 30 years, our company has gone through many chapters, and what was right in the past needs to be constantly reexamined to ensure we are still true to our word.
One of the companies we acquired had active and illustrative values, including "create success" and "be brave." Their values were strong and actionable: Someone who needed to make a critical decision on a Friday afternoon with no one else around could recall the value "be brave" and go for it. So, we are taking this moment to evolve our values to match the company's evolution. We're reevaluating the original company values and if they still hold. The core ones, like respect and integrity, will remain, but in our 25+ years later, some values may not be quite right.
Ultimately, most values aim toward the same ends — respect, integrity and a feeling of trust and belonging. Focus on four or five values that answer the question, "What do we believe in that will help us make better decisions?" Then, make leadership decisions that reflect them. Trust is built when people see their leadership standing by those values. Even when merging five companies into one, strong values enable a healthy culture that ensures that people are motivated, engaged and committed to work every day to deliver the results for the company.