Working out what our corporate values really mean?

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —October 26, 2009
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling, Strategy

Most organisations I know have a set of stated values. You know what I mean, things like integrity, professionalism, respect for the individual. And in most cases they’ve been developed for the wrong reasons. And when developed for the right reasons, most employees don’t understand what the values mean anyway. Let me explain.

Often the starting question for establishing a set of organisational values is, “Which values should we hold each and everyone accountable for so our organisation thrives?” This gets translated to “What values do our stakeholders (employees, customers, suppliers) expect us to hold?” The list is then drawn up and the result is a moribund list of words.

I was reading a paper by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras and they suggest an alternative set of questions (in my words): “What values do we deeply hold that reflect the essence of our company?” and “Would we still hold these values if they created a disadvantage for us if things changed?” If you can answer these two questions in the positive then you’ve identified your core values. What I found really interesting was looking at some examples Collins and Porras gave and noticed how each company held a different set in that the usual suspects weren’t repeated: they didn’t all have to value innovation, or customer service, or integrity. The lists I’m seeing are starting to look the same.


  • Elevation of the Japanese culture and national status
  • Being a pioneer – not following others; doing the impossible
  • Encouraging individual ability and creativity


  • Corporate social responsibility
  • Unequivocal excellence in all aspects of the company
  • Science-based innovation
  • Honesty and integrity
  • Profit, but profit from work that benefits humanity

Walt Disney

  • No cynicism
  • Nurturing and promulgation of “wholesome American values”
  • Creativity, dreams, and imagination
  • Fanatical attention to consistency and detail
  • Preservation and control of the Disney magic

Collins and Porras’ research shows that companies who have enduring values and a clear purpose out perform their competitors. But here’s the thing, their core values are not chosen because they think they will be competitive advantages, rather they are chosen because they are held deeply by the core group. Art Kleiner, who wrote a terrific book on core group theory, makes the good point that “The organisation goes wherever its people perceive that the Core Group needs and wants to go. The organisation becomes whatever its people perceive and want to become.” And this is double true for organisational values.

Values and meaning

When I worked at SMS (Australian consulting company) in the 90s we had three values: add value, maintain unity, enhance reputation. I knew what the 2nd and 3rd values meant but ‘add value’ was a bit fuzzy for me. Value fuzziness is a common problem. And you’ve probably guessed what I’m going to suggest as a way to provide meaning: that’s right, STORIES.

Imagine if for every value everyone can tell one or more stories to illustrate what that values means. I often ask people to give me an example to illustrate a value and in many cases all I get is a very intense look of someone desperately trying to remember a story to tell. I’ve said it before but if a company values [insert value] then it should be teeming with [insert value] stories.

Tyco has worked this one out. Tyco is a global business involved in fire safety, security and manufacturing. A few years back they released a booklet called Doing the Right Thing: The Tyco Guide to Ethical Conduct . For each ethical guideline they included one or more stories that either illustrated what the ethical value means when it’s working or what it looks liked when it is broken. For example, Tyco values safety and a healthy work environment and here are their stories of that value when it’s broken.

Unsafe Behavior Related to Health, Safety, and Environmental Issues Looks Like …

To save money at his plant, Sam provides half the number of safety goggles as there are employees on the line and instructs them to share.

Piette, the plant operations manager, instructs her people to dump used machine oil on unused acreage at the back of the facility.

Al, the plant manager, allows the contractor responsible for the removal of organic waste material to dump it in a local lake.

At Anecdote we do a lot of work helping organisations find and tell the stories that illustrate their values and also help design systematic ways to embed those values throughout the consciousness of everyone in the organisation. It is only by working at this level of values and purpose can people make the best decision possible in a complex and dynamic environment. Rules don’t cut it. And if we think about what really makes an organisation it’s those thousands and thousands of decisions are made each and every day, each one guides by the values in action.

Collins, J.C. & Porras, J.I. 1996, ‘Building Your Company’s Vision’, Harvard Business Review, vol. September-October, pp. 65-77.

Kleiner, A. 2003, Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege, and Success, Currency Doubleday, New York.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Nice post, Shawn. “Value fuzziness” rings a bell… What I see is companies defining values but not ‘deploying’ them. Employees don’t know what they mean. And when they do and they see values are not lived up to, where should they go? I like the way IBM redid their values using Jam sessions. I posted about it here.

  2. Geof Cox says:

    Hi Shawn. The post resonated with me as a practitioner in Appreciative Inquiry. There we use the stories to uncover the positive core of the organisation – what give life and purpose? Hence we then get to the values that are real, not just ‘nice to have’. Good to see an analysis from a different direction. Geof

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