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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

Vision & Values

This year I've been doing a lot of work with different organisations who have been or are currently going through a process of launching a new or refreshed vision and values. The wording surrounding this process can vary (vision, mission and purpose are all used seemingly interchangeably) but the principles remain broadly the same. The organisations are seeking to set direction and galvanise the team behind a shared understanding of the direction that the business is travelling and the behaviours needed to get there.

I enjoy this type of work; it's fun seeing and helping organisations going through the process of exploring what really matters to them and seeing the varying ways in which they engage their people to dig into these subjects. Sometimes the direction is set from the top and then the leadership launch the vision and engage the teams in exploring what this means to them and what part they believe they have to play in it. At other times, it's developed more organically, with the leadership running roadshows and capturing from those who are ultimately responsible for delivering the outcomes for the business, exactly the language that they believe best captures where the company needs to go. Then it's refined and polished and packaged up and finally launched, usually with much fanfare, to the organisation and its stakeholders.

When it's done well, it can be genuinely galvanising. A shared direction gives everyone in the organisation something to measure their work again. 'Are the things I'm doing moving us in the direction required?' If they're not, I need to be doing different things. And when there's conflict in the organisation, it can be more easily solved when there's something written down that tells us all where we're trying to get to, or the type of organisation we're trying to be. When I worked at RBS, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, we introduced a tool called the Yes Check; a series of five questions which everyone could ask themselves and use to challenge one another, when decisions were being made, to make sure that the intent and direction of those decisions were aligned with the organisation's aspirations.

But what about when it isn't done right, or when it's half-arsed? Well I've certainly seen that happen! One of the challenges with this sort of exercise is that it's the sort of thing that's expected from organisations. Set your vision. Have a mission. Be purpose led. Publish your values. So there's always a danger that a business does it because they think they're supposed to, rather than because they actually intend to use it in a meaningful way.

There are absolutely no shortage of companies, large and small, who have been involved in some of the worst business scandals in history and who had a vision and values which they just flat out ignored. Enron's motto was Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence. Its mission statement, which outlined its values, stated, "We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves.... We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don't belong here." Anyone who knows ANYTHING about that company and the people who ran it (and ran it into the ground and themselves into jail) knows that those were empty words, which bore no resemblance to the way in which the organisation was run. The organisation had an ethical code, but the director had the ability to suspend this code (which they did multiple times) and the organisation's failure ultimately cost investors around $11bn.

Lehman Brothers, too, had words and phrases which were designed to guide everyone within their walls. “We must always do business in a manner that protects and promotes the interest of our clients” was the wording in the documentation, however that didn't stop them becoming dangerously over leveraged and they were eventually forced to liquidate their assets in 2008.

These are only two examples, but I could go on all day. The point I'm making is this - writing down and sharing a mission, purpose, vision and values is absolutely worthless if your organisation doesn't live by them. If the words (what you say) and the music (what you do) don't match, people will see right through it. Best case, it's ignored. Worst case, they use it as a stick to beat you with!

So what can you do, in order to make sure that this stuff sticks? Well there are a few things that definitely help.

  • The first is leader role-modelling. Most organisations operate on the principle of 'what's interesting to my boss, is fascinating to me' so whatever the leaders do will cascade down through the rest of the staff. Make sure that, as a leader, you absolutely live by the vision and values of your organisation, in order to give it the best possible chance of embedding.

  • Secondly, you need to reinforce them. If you've done any change management, you'll likely be familiar with the acronym ADKAR, which is one of the most commonly used change management frameworks. In it, the R stands for Reinforcement. Change requires constant and consistent communication. Make sure that you're talking about the vision and values, showing where they're being lived and bringing others into the conversation to share their experiences.

  • Reward and recognition are fundamental too. If the mission and vision and values are genuinely important, surely you should be recognising and rewarding those people who live and breathe them. You'll get more of what you reward, so choose to reframe any awards or staff recognition that you offer around the values, in order to show that you really do care about them

  • On the other side of that, people need to be held accountable for not living up to them. If ethics are high on your list of values and build into your vision, anyone behaving unethically needs to be punished for this. Otherwise we find ourselves right back in a place where the words and music don't match.

  • Sharing best practice and letting people demonstrate their achievements in line with the values is powerful, too. It needs to be more than just you evangelising; get others involved and let them show how they're bringing the words to life and the impact that it's having on stakeholders and customers, internal and external.

  • And finally, ensure that the processes of the organisation are aligned with and in support of the vision, mission, purpose and values. If you talk about collaboration and breaking down silos, make sure that the tools exist to collaborate effectively. Make sure that the remuneration and benefits programmes reward those who collaborate. Make sure the buildings are laid out in such a way as to encourage collaboration and team working. It's no good singing about how much you care about teamwork but then remunerating people for individual performance. Doing that undermines everything you say.

As I said at the outset, doing this and doing it right can be incredibly powerful; just ensure that if you do go down this road, you go all the way down this road, so that you're able to truly realise the potential of the work you've done and build a company that everyone within it can be proud to be a part of.

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