Such larks in the boardroom. The plodding behemoth Aberdeen Standard is to be known henceforth as “Abrdn”. “Rbsh!” cries a bemused public. Much derision too in the world of football, following the announcement of plans by 12 leading clubs to form a European Super League, from which they can never be relegated: “Own goal!” “Net zeroes!” “Kick ’em out!” Connoisseurs of terrible football puns have had a field day (sorry). The only “super” element turned out to be the supersonic speed at which this wizard wheeze zoomed from launch to oblivion, imploding in a toxic miasma of greed and betrayal.
Abrdn and the “Dirty Dozen” clubs could hardly be more different, but the ordure heaped on them has a common cause: a perception that they betrayed their basic values. Despite previous catastrophes, most recently in 2008, financial institutions are seen as bastions of stability. It is fine to be innovative, but not gimmicky. In football, take away jeopardy and you are left with a meaningless exhibition. As one Liverpool fan said in disgust, “They want to turn us into the Harlem Globetrotters”.
What do these episodes teach us about values? First, they matter a great deal, to staff and customers alike. Secondly, they are easy to proclaim; much harder to live up to. Take, for example this impressive list: Communication. Respect. Integrity. Excellence. They sound great. Who wouldn’t want to work for, or buy from, such an enlightened organisation? Maybe they resemble your own firm’s values, the ones your specially appointed subcommittee spent so much time writing, debating, and revising. They are the corporate values of Enron, and as it turned out, they were a sick joke. The world of law is not immune: Integrity. Collaboration. Inclusivity. Respect. Performance. These are the published values of a recent recipient of Roll on Friday’s Golden Turd Award for worst law firm employer.
The road to core values
The focus on corporate values really took off in 1994, when Jim Collins and Jerry Porras published Built to Last, which made the case that many of the best companies adhered to a set of principles called core values, which are inherent and sacrosanct; they can never be compromised, either for convenience or short-term economic gain. As author Paul Lencioni wrote over 20 years ago in Harvard Business Review, “this provoked managers to stampede to off-site meetings in order to conjure core values of their own. The values fad swept through corporate America like chickenpox through a kindergarten”.
Today, as culture wars blaze all around us, with the behaviour of companies and individuals under constant, brutal scrutiny, no one would describe them as a fad. Well articulated and executed, they may bestow competitive advantage. Fail to live up to them, and trust and value are destroyed.
In general, core values help to answer these three questions:
What are we going to contribute? What contribution are we going to make to business development, management, training and mentoring, collaboration with colleagues?
How are we going to behave? Are we lone wolves, or team players? How hard will we work? Are we committed to service excellence? Really? Are we diligent about timekeeping, billing and stewarding the firm’s resources? Are we available and accessible?
What is our character? Do we act with integrity, keep promises, put the clients first, the firm second, and our own interest third? Are we committed to leaving a legacy for those who come after us?
A potent set of core values provides an objective standard against which our conduct and performance will be judged. To that extent, it can be a boon to the firm’s leadership.
But it’s a tool with two edges, because it keeps leaders’ behaviour constantly in the spotlight. For example, espouse collaboration as a core value, then act autocratically, and the result is a demotivated and cynical workforce.
Precisely because core values are not just cuddly nice-to-haves and matter so much, the leadership must be deeply involved in creating them from the start. Nor is this something to be rushed. Self-examination is likely to throw up difficult questions which will take time and serious thinking to work through. It is not something to be delegated, and canvassing the whole firm to achieve consensus is also a mistake. It’s for leaders to be clear about the values they believe should be core. Once they have been formulated, by all means ask for comment before they are formally adopted, but that is the right order. Remember, the original statement of core values is the Ten Commandments. So far as is known, before God gave them to Moses, He didn’t decide to hold an off-site.
Stephen Gold was the founder and senior partner of Golds, a multi-award-winning law firm which grew from a sole practice to become a UK leader in its sectors. He is now a consultant, non-exec and trusted adviser to leading firms nationwide and internationally. Email: email@example.com; telephone: 0044 7968 484232; web: www.stephengold.co.uk; Twitter: @thewordofgold