Four Reasons why Corporate Value Statements don’t work

« Excellence », « integrity » and « communication » These seem to be the most popular buzzwords in corporate value statements.

I roll my eyes as soon as I see these values anywhere. Why? I will give you four reasons why they make me nervous:

1. One size does not fit all

First of all, values like excellence, integrity, and communication are way too generic. They could be adopted by any organization. Who would be against excellence, integrity, and communication? But are they really specific for the company and its culture or business model? Probably not! Excellence can mean many things to different people. It certainly makes a difference what we mean by excellence whether you are working in a bank or a hospital.
Integrity? It means that you always stick to your moral principles no matter what the benefit might be if you break the rules. This value, too, needs a lot of definition and soul searching before a group of people like a company can agree what it really means to them: When is a gift a bribe? How do we deal with confidential information?  Can I be friends with a supplier? Etc.

Pic Blog Corporate Values prt1 Yes, way too often value statement are empty word bubbles! Please avoid that. Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash 

 

2. The true colors are always shining through

Second, often companies succumb to the temptation to choose values that sound appealing but are too far away from their corporate reality and somehow hoping that the simple act of proclaiming that value it will become a reality in the organization. For example, when companies put “communication” in their value chart they wish to express with this value, which is not even a value but an activity, that they want everyone in the organization to cooperate effectively and openly with as little political power play as possible. Wishful thinking in many cases!  Of course, the people in the company know this and react with cynicism.

You cannot declare that your company cherishes collaboration, open communication, and teamwork when in reality your corporate culture is driven by fierce internal competition, politics and monetary incentives only. What we need is an inside-out approach. You have to do your internal cultural homework before you go into the world and brag about what a wonderful company you think you are.

Values statement will never work, if they are only the icing on the cake, they have to be the very foundation of a corporate culture. Within the icing-on-the-cake approach, the top management comes together and agrees on some fancy sounding words that are then communicated to the lower ranks. This does not work. It is like putting on makeup without washing your face. Or like learning some moves and gestures to appear more self-assured without doing the hard internal work of personal development.

France Telecom had to learn this the hard way in 2008, when they got hit by a series of over 30 employee suicides: victims stabbed themselves in the middle of company meetings, jumped out of the window at work and left goodbye letters that clearly stated that they killed themselves because of the pressures and fears at work. At that time France Telecom was in a difficult transition from a state-owned company to a player in the highly competitive and dynamic international telcom market and could not fire employees with a public servant status. Therefore, CEO Didier Lombard had introduced a merciless shake-out project that aimed at demoralizing employees in order to make them leave the company “voluntarily”.  As a reaction to the suicide series, Lombard said that this “fashion” of suicide should stop and that the media coverage created an effect of contagion. The waves of public outrage went high, Lombard had to leave and is still today on trial for harassment. Of course, at the same time, France Telecom had a value statement that said that the well-being of their employees was very important to them.

It is clear that after a disaster like that it will be very, very hard to ever make coworkers believe in the beautiful words of a value statement again. This is one point that is often ignored when companies initiate a value management project: If you screw it up, credibility is lost for a very long time, if not forever. At the same time, it is true that values can and should be aspirational. You can use values as part of a change program. But if you do that you have to make clear that you know that you are not quite there yet and prove that you have measures like training, organizational redesign or new performance standards in place to get there.

3. No Emotional appeal

Third, if values are too generic and unrealistic they do not create any genuine emotional response or connection for the men and women in a company who know the true colors of their organization all too well.  Of course, client orientation is important, but this is not a value that would deeply resonate with the hearts of employees. This is nothing that makes people get out of bed in the morning and go to work with joy and anticipation.

How can you make corporate values emotionally appealing? Not easy, but it helps to always start with a motivating overall purpose of the company that goes beyond the profit motive. Humans always yearn for meaning in their life. As philosopher and Holocaust survivor Viktor Fraenkel famously put it: “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”

This human desire for meaning is nicely illustrated by Harish Manwani’s (COO of Unilever) TED talk in which he tells the story of his first day at the company where his boss asked him why he was there. Manwani answered: “To sell lots of soap!” and his boss said: “No, to change peoples lives!”, because the original purpose of Unilever was to improve hygiene in order to help prevent contagious diseases. Clearly changing peoples lives is more emotionally appealing than selling lots of soap, right?

4. No link to everyday behavior

Forth, very often values statements are not linked to behavior. They get developed, glossy brochures rolled out, employees (maybe) read them, laugh bitterly because they are so unrealistic and cheesy and then they forget them because nothing happens that would link these values with the behavior of managers and employees. The mere proclamation of value buzz words will never, never, never influence people’s behavior. How people in an organization actually behave is the ultimate proof to the value pudding. Without this link to behavior, a value statement loses all credibility and disappoints all expectations that unavoidably come up when a company opens the value Pandora’s box.

And by the way, these three values, excellence, integrity, and communication were the corporate values of Enron. And we all know how this ended: In jail, bankruptcy, and shattered hopes. Somehow Enron had managed to win prizes for their value statement, but it definitely did not keep their top management from cooking the books and inciting their employees to cut-throat business behavior with the help of an inhumane incentive system.

In a nutshell, ever so often value statements do not go beyond orgies of humanistic prose in shiny brochures that nobody can take seriously. In extreme cases, they are a more or less random collection of buzzwords sound like this hilarious song by Weird Al: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GyV_UG60dD4

On the other side, of course, values are important for companies in our highly volatile, complex and ambiguous times. Old-school management that works with order and command is too rigid for this new fast-moving world. The younger generation of corporate coworkers is looking for more freedom, more fun, more autonomy and more purpose in their jobs. Here a corporate culture that is driven by values and a purpose that goes beyond simple profit maximization creates a positive appeal for future coworkers, higher levels of motivation with current coworkers and a more inspiring and more flexible way of decision making. Ideally, instead of applying rigid rulebooks, controls and processes, coworkers decide on the basis of common values.

So how can you come up with a value statement that will actually have these positive effects instead of creating cynicism and ridicule?

Stay tuned for my next blog post and on the five steps to make the value statements work.

Prof.-Bettina-PalazzoAuthor: Dr. Bettina Palazzo, BSL Professor

Responsible sourcing at Nestlé – BSL students learn first-hand about key elements of corporate sustainability

As all of us working in this field know, sustainability is highly complex, requiring an understanding of multiple disciplines, many of which rather technical. Additionally, there’s a big gap between theory and practice, especially when attempting to transform existing companies and systems that were not built with sustainability in mind.

In our case, after 5 classes of “Business Responsibility & Sustainability”, covering principles, natural and planetary boundaries, human dimensions, major programs like SDGs and MDGs, the role of businesses, stakeholder models and management, including role plays on how companies create conflict and how to resolve them – it was time to see how it all works in practice.

Early January, we were fortunate to be received by Dionys Forster (Sourcing specialist, department of corporate agriculture) and Diarmuid O’Connor (Global manager, agricultural raw materials) at the Nestlé HQ in Vevey.

Given the size and complexity of Nestlé (over 300k employees, 190 countries, thousand of brands and many more products), we had to focus, in the case of our visit on rural development and responsible sourcing of agricultural products, especially milk, cocoa, coffee. This of course means that many other topics with high sustainability relevance, such as processed food, added sugars, bottled water, palm oil, pesticides and many others, were not discussed during this visit.

What we saw and discussed was highly sophisticated, well designed and effectively implemented. Here are a few highlights:

  • Planetary boundaries and Terrestrial biodiversity were used to introduce the subject, similarly to how we started our own class two months ago.
  • Nestlé, with 1.7% world market share, is the biggest player in a highly distributed market, top 20 companies collectively accounting for only 9%. This means, to make a big difference, working with competitors is required.
  • Social media analysis reveals that people are concerned about food quality, climate change, packaging, animal welfare.
  • To make sourcing more responsible, Nestlé implemented Farmer Connect, directly sourcing from 760’000 farmers, ensuring almost total product traceability, offering training (400’000 farmers trained) and limiting price volatility (a major benefit for farmers, allowing them to better plan ahead).
  • A broad sustainable agriculture initiative (SAIN) aims to reduce waste and pollution, better use water, reduce greenhouse gases through technology dissemination, financial support for farmers, buying clubs, price stability, education, training, and advocacy.
  • RISE (Response-Inducing Sustainability Evaluation) is a questionnaire-based tool developed at the Bern University of Applied Sciences, rapidly identifying problem areas, allowing to better focus improvement efforts.
  • “Dairy for you” is an education program offering differentiated training for workers, specialists, managers, and graduates, by setting up a local institute or working with a local university.
  • At Nestlé Nutrition, baby food requires much lower limits of pesticide, lead, cadmium, mercury etc. residues – Nestlé applies the same (strictest) standards around the world, even in countries where not legally required.
  • In Ghana, to reach the majority of farmers who don’t read or write, a local theater play with characters representing good farmer / bad farmer is used to develop local community knowledge – and at the same time improve raw material quality and safety
  • A key issue in agriculture is succession – worldwide, the average farmer age is 60, in the US 65, in Japan 77; and specifically making farming attractive for the young generation. Nestlé has been working with many farmers for 2 or 3 generations, but the issue remains.

This reminds me of an excellent article published in the NYTimes “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers”, showing how the design of our food system, among many other issues, also makes farming unattractive for young generations.

Therefore we thank again Dionys Forster and Diarmuid O’Connor, not only for receiving us so well, but for doing so much to make sourcing more responsible.

Author: Sascha Nick, Associate Professor at BSL

Hacking for chocolate

“Chocothon” hits sweet spot of collaborative innovation in Ghana

Key question….what went on in Ghana last weekend that might have something to do with BSL’s vision and mission, and especially its three pillars of entrepreneurship, sustainability and responsible leadership in a context of collaborative learning?

The first Chocothon, that’s what! BSL has partnered with Google, the International Trade Center, the Future Food Institute, Crowdfooding and a host of other cool organizations to promote a “techno” focus on the sustainability and business threats around world cocoa supply. How? By holding a hackathon for chocolate (hence the term “Chocothon”). For those not yet in the know, a hackathon is an event, typically lasting a few days, in which groups of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming. The idea of “hacking for chocolate” was born some two years ago at the Google Food Innovation Lab (where BSL partner and thought leader Dr. Aileen Ionescu-Somers is an expert participant). The first Chocothon in a series became reality in Accra, Ghana this weekend!

img_9925Threats…around chocolate? What? When you look at supermarket shop shelves today, it is hard to believe there is a problem. After all, we seem to have a plentiful supply of cheap, delicious chocolate treats. But don’t be fooled; our business system is overly short-term oriented. The economics barely work for now and benefit too few stakeholders. Long-term, if the crucial farmer producer of cocoa is not protected, then it’s a zero sum game. In other words, no supply = no business (so bad news for companies) = very expensive Easters, Christmases, Valentine’s days and Birthdays in the future (so terrible news for consumers).

Let’s focus on the challenges. Undercompensating farmers for quality cocoa ultimately leads to too low an income for farmers to bother staying in the business. It creates a rather vicious cycle: no money = low or no investment in new technologies, new trees or desperately needed training = increasingly lower yields and environmental degradation = lower quality cocoa = even less compensation. Then there are government policy threats, such as lack of knowledge and certainty about land rights and ownership leading to insecurity in land tenure. Macroeconomic issues such as inflation and defective exchange rate regimes also take their toll. So farmers in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire and other cocoa producing countries are not only exiting cocoa farming and/or switching to other less challenging crops, but they do not want their children to stay in cocoa farming either.  Farming cocoa is a grueling task. If the economics do not work, it is even harder to make a business case to the increasingly literate children of farmers who, after all, may have other options.

So what does the Chocothon set out to do? Well, can the best of modern day high tech ingenuity contribute to resolving the problems around cocoa production? Can this be done in a context where illiteracy is widespread and access to Smartphones extremely limited? We agree…its a pretty tough call. But the technology landscape is changing rapidly. The Chocothon team figured that if we could get young Ghanaians excited about problems in their own country, through collaboration they could be empowered to focus their ingenuity on thinking forward and fixing them. After all, the problems we mention are man-made, so let’s get some man (and woman)-made solutions!

Need more convincing?  Well, if you get enough stakeholders together in one room with some hackers to work on a problem, you can literally start… hacking away at it.  So, for example, at the Chocothon, we invited government representatives to not only contribute their knowledge as “knowledge brokers” but to also raise awareness with them of the importance of increasing internet and Smart phone technology access, or of increasing institutional knowledge about land sizes, ownership and security. After all, knowing what you didn’t know makes for better decision-making. Looking forward, we can expect that young farmers in Ghana will be – as all young people are – ingenuous about assuring their own access to technology; every single trend in the world indicates that this is the case.

Therefore, the idea of designing collaborative platforms to share farming equipment or expertise to increase quality of work and efficiency and thus productivity, is not a pipe dream.  To set up systems empowering farmers to demand and get the best prices on the market is not a hallucination either. To enable mobile direct payments to farmers – faster cashless money transactions – coupled with now fast developing services like mobile insurance or other business transactions for tools or fertilizers are totally feasible future options for Africa, as they have been for other countries. Micro-financing of farmer investments, even by crowd-sourcing funds from all the chocolate lovers out there might be another possibility. Creating training platforms, or indeed tools that help young farmers with assessing soil fertility, tree age, crop diseases…all this is possible today. We can also look at optimizing transportation platforms to allow for better transport of cocoa beans – a big headache for Ghanaian farmers today. Get it? Good!

So from Saturday to Sunday 20-21 January, 2017 a group of young and talented hackers – IT developers and social innovators – got together with other stakeholders at the Impact Hub n Accra, Ghana. Representatives and knowledge brokers joined from multiple organizations such as the Ghanaian government, Google, Barry Callebaut (Swiss B2B cocoa supplier), the International Trade Center and the Future Food Institute. The Chocathon team assigned the hackers to working groups and provided food, drinks, and even mattresses (yes!) for the all night hack.

img_9852-2The teams had a task of building up a prototype and uploading deliverables step by step during the hackathon. Sounds familiar? It is pretty much the techie version of what the students of BSL did by designing start-ups to tackle social issues during the last Gap-Frame week last December… Yes, this kind of collaborative learning is taking hold in more sectors than one! The Ghanaian Chocothon hackers get tempting prizes to encourage innovation and even conversion of their prototypes into working businesses, such as a co-working space for one year at the Impact Hub or for six months at ISpace, or indeed a cash prize.

Watch this space for the next blog about the Chocothon where we will tell you about some of the cool ideas the hackers came up with. This is the first of a series of Chocothons that will ultimately contribute to saving YOUR treasured chocolate from gradual extinction. Tune in to #chocothon hashtag to find out more. Even better…how about supporting our next Chocothon? Here is our crowd-funding site link:  https://www.crowdfooding.co.uk/deal/188/Chocothon

Why should you get involved? Because YOUR chocolate needs YOU!

Ionescu-AileenPICTURE-150x150Author: Dr. Aileen Ionescu-Somers

Active in thought leadership, consulting, applied research, teaching and supervising DBA candidates in sustainability & responsibility.