By Thierry Wellhoff
In the corporate environment, the subject of values often is viewed either with mistrust—and there have been many cavils, at times exaggerated—or with a zeal that may induce dizzying hopes, or end in bitter disappointment.
At first glance the subject of values, in this context, may seem a little abstract, and in many cases, it is bound up with ideas of morality that limit its scope. The fact that a company refrains from explicitly proclaiming values does not necessarily mean it is lacking in them. It may simply not have taken the time to dwell on its values to the extent that it can codify them. And in most cases this is because it is not aware of the potential benefits that working on values may bring.
Skeptics in the corporate world have put forward a number of arguments, among which the following are frequently heard:
But how do you select values? How do you use them? Does the fact of choosing certain values not imply the rejection of all the others? Does it not mean placing restrictions on oneself, whereas, in fact, all values are worthwhile in themselves? But in that case, how are choices made? In the great compendium of values, it is necessary to distinguish between those that are illusionary and those that provide meaning for the company that formulates them.
The following five criteria can be of use in determining whether or not a value is to be thought of as “real”:
1. Explicit Definition
(Refers to the Index of Corporate Values, which identified eight value categories that include: competence, winning, behavior, social and moral values…www.wellcom.fr)
A value is first of all a term that needs to be invested with sense. And more than any other type of term, it has to be clarified in order to give it certain directedness. It also needs to win acceptance by groups that hold markedly different viewpoints. Understanding the meaning of the value “freedom,” for example, is not rocket science. But does freedom have the same sense irrespective of the company that expresses it? Does it have the same sense for the tourist industry as for publishing? The same for a leading international group as for its challengers? The same for a London headquarters as for its subsidiary in Dubai?
2. A Field of Action
(Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics,II. 4 – 9 1105 b – 1109 b and Ethique à Eudème,II 3, 1220 b – 1221 b, in André Comte-Sponville, Petit traité des grandes vertus, PUF, Paris, 1995, pp. 14 – 15)
Applying a value means maintaining a delicate balance between a lower and an upper limit. One can be below the minimum or above the maximum. Every value is “a peak between two vices, a crest between two chasms.” In companies, the example of ambition is significant. Below what level is there insufficiency? Above what level does excess lie? At what point does personal ambition start to overshadow collective ambition?
3. Indignation Aroused by the Absence of a Value
It is simple enough to endorse a value. And in the corporate world they are always positive—which makes it difficult to choose between them. One way of recognizing a general consensus with regard to a value consists of imagining its opposite, or its nonexistence. The level of disapproval that might be caused by its absence likely will correspond with the reality of the corporate situation.
4. The “Universality” of a Value
A value cannot target customers or colleagues only. It must be universal; in other words, it must be able to address, and be applicable to, all of a company’s stakeholders: internally, its employees, and in particular those who work together, but also externally, its customers, shareholders, suppliers, associated groups, experts, activist organizations, the media, civil society, etc. Above and beyond values per se, the point is to convert them into applicable principles of action.
5. The Translation of Values into Actions
What would a be value without a concrete application? They would be precisely what we see them to be, in companies that use them as mere window dressing. Values must be converted into principles of action, which, in turn, must provide a context for action.
The studies that were carried out in the context of the Index of International Corporate Values bring to light a hundred or so values, called “pilot” values. They have lead to the creation of eight value categories such as competency values (quality and professionalism) or winning values (ambition or performances), which alone make up more than 50 percent of the values retained by French companies. Values are a priority for companies (choosing values, of course, doesn’t mean renouncing all the others, but defining priorities) and even values such as talent (value of fulfillment) or even the love of food (far from being a virtue, it can be claimed as a value for the dessert industry) are noteworthy.
Values enable a company to reconcile their marketing and corporate vision. But beyond window dressing, the creation of values quite often indicates “schizophrenia” in the creation of the company itself.
On the one hand, a company’s marketing is designed to make money. On the other hand, the company is an institution (social enterprise) whose role is to serve society. These two visions are at best ignored, as they are, in theory, completely incompatible (the one tolerates the other and vice-versa), or at worst, they prevent a company from developing itself. Interestingly though, it’s almost as if these dimensions were simply two visions of the same company. And yet the company integrates these two visions. How could a company’s marketing be sustainable without its ability to create a strong connection with its different stakeholders, both internal and external? How could a social enterprise endure without taking note of its competitors’ advantages?
It is time to put an end to this old-fashioned vision of a company; a vision that makes a company look completely “commercial” or only “ethical.” Marketing or ethics? Marketing andethics! It is high time that companies reconcile these economic and societal dimensions.
Values: The Genetic Code of a Company
A values system, unique to a particular company, operates like a genetic code, allowing the company to address its different groups with coherence, most notably its employees who are an undeniable relay of the company’s image. An integral approach to the genetic code constitutes the most relevant means for a company to unify its actions and, moreover, give it a global meaning and coherence in what it says, its communication, and what it does, it’s business behavior.
In other words: Construct its reputation.
Thierry Wellhoff the author of “Values” (Eyrolles Publishers), which is divided into three main sections: “Understanding Values,” “Investigating Values,” and “Implementing a ‘Values’ Approach.” Wellhoff is the head of the Wellcom communication Agency, which he founded in 1981. In 2002, he set up a group of experts to carry out a multidisciplinary study on the nature of corporate values. Wellhoff also created the Index of International Corporate Values, first within the framework of Wellcom and then in association with ECCO, which analyzed data from 4,000 companies, the last results of which were incorporated into “Values.” Wellhoff is also the president of Syntec PR, the French equivalent of the PRCA in England. For more information, visit www.wellcom.fr/lesvaleurs.