Feb 15

In search of corporate values

Martin Aldergard
Martin Aldergard is partner and founding member of ENPEO Consulting.

Have you ever wondered where all these nice corporate value statements come from, that brighten up most of our meeting rooms, hallways, lobbies, elevators and even rest-rooms? Have you reflected over if they actually represent who we are as an organization and forms a part of what makes us unique and competitive on the market?

In a client project last year, I had the opportunity to think around these questions with a group of 30 leaders from a large company in the agricultural business. You can probably imagine the scenario; a function room at a hotel where leaders in small groups are discussing to arrive at an up-to-date version of their corporate value statement.

One of the exercises we used to trigger conversations, was to ask the teams to look for evidence from what has made us successful in the past. The teams started by re-creating the company time-line on a large poster and identifying what in their opinion are significant events, mile-stones or challenges that were overcome. This gave a better perspective and context to understand what has made us into who we are today. Next, each team had to discuss and come up with 4 values (words) as representations of how the company has acted in the past to become successful. The challenge was that the team had to find and record a real-life story as evidence or example of each value they picked.


Something interesting happened. Some teams picked the values (words) first, either from current value statement or from the list of generic corporate values that we provided as inspiration. Then they tried to find matching events in the past to back-up those values. Other teams did the opposite; starting by selecting the significant stories that defined how we did things successfully, and then trying to associate a matching word (value) to that behavior.At the debriefing of this exercise an interesting and sometimes heated discussion of the purpose of the corporate value statement ensued.

Should it be a ‘list’ of values representing who we actually are and how we actually do things in the company, i.e. our culture; or should it be a representation of what we aspire to be?

Assuming that our culture (the way we do things) is a competitive advantage of our organization, then definitely it should be something that we try to preserve and even reinforce. The purpose of articulating our corporate values in this case would be to align and remind ourselves of this fact, get newcomers to faster align with our unique culture by making it explicit and ensure our external marketing efforts are inline with who we truly are on the inside to drive differentiation from competitors.

On the other hand, if we risk being blind to dysfunctions in our culture, to ways of working that are not fit for a changing market place, we should be able to use ‘new’ values and attributes as guides of how we ought to behave. In theory at least?


At the end of the discussion, this group of leaders mainly agreed that we should try to build value statements based on who we really are and on attributes that we can associate with and hold ourselves true to. Mainly based on past examples and stories. Then there is another problem on how to keep these values up-to-date and behaviors current with changing conditions.

This conclusion was painful for a few of the participants who had been involved in an exercise previous year of formulating corporate values by essentially ‘benchmarking’ a few other famous companies and putting together a list of values based on what they found. The problem was this value statement, although it looked very nice on the wall, was never really used and never really ignited any discussions, debate or passion. It was life-less.
Now it was finally clear to all why it hadn’t worked; that list of values wasn’t “us”.


  • Keep to working based on “us”, don’t look at others when it comes to corporate values
  • It’s all in the conversations we build the meaning of the value; which has implications for communicating the updated values to the rest of the organization
  • It’s not about producing a nice poster for the hallway
This entry was posted on Monday, February 15th, 2010 at 01:01 and is filed under Management. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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