When CEO choices make or break company values

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In this article Tenzing’s Entrepreneur in Residence, Glenn Elliott explains that when it comes to company culture and values, it is CEO choices that really make the difference.

Most companies have a set of stated values or principles that they have spent time thinking about. Many companies believe that these values could be good for business if they were followed. But only very few companies ever get to the stage of having their values really embedded and lived every day.

I’ve worked with hundreds of companies big and small that have struggled to embed values in their daily routine. Many have spent a fortune with consultants to discover their values, lots have produced snazzy slide decks and a few have made fancy videos and brochures.

Embedding company values can take years and significant effort. But it is worth it. And it doesn’t involve magic, witchcraft or even an expensive consultant. Only choices. And, like most things to do with culture, it’s the choices made by the CEO that are the most critical.

Choice 1: Write them down

Many people complain that companies write values on the wall and don’t live them. They are right to complain – that is pointless and wrong. But writing values on the wall (or wherever else is handy in this socially distanced world) isn’t the problem. It is the inaction afterwards that causes failure.

Your starting point is to make sure that everyone has your values to hand and front of mind. And don’t just write the values themselves. You need to explain what they actually mean. Words can mean different things to different people so a paragraph or two explaining the position and context is key.

This is your foundation, so do it well.

Choice 2: Refer to them routinely. Every day.

As a good CEO, you will be in constant dialogue with your team. You will be publishing company updates, explaining the strategy, giving sales updates to your people, listening to their ideas, recognising staff, thanking people and being front and centre as the leader of the business.

In all of your communications with your employees, refer to your values when possible and when appropriate to support what you are saying.

When communicating decisions on strategy, explain which values guided you. When thanking or recognising staff, mention which values they demonstrated. When dealing with difficult subjects, explain which values supported you.

When people see you refer to your company values as a tool that you use they will start to see them actually have a purpose.

Choice 3: Live them when no-one is looking

Living your values when no-one is looking is a mark that they really mean something to you and have value. And in reality, there is always someone looking. Sometimes the audience will be small, but the effect will be big.

So in private negotiations between peers, closed meetings in teams, contract wrangles with suppliers and even compromise agreements with people leaving, be sure to refer to and live your company values. It is in these times that they should be most valuable and the message you send in using them there is powerful. 

Choice 4: Stand by them when they cost you money

This is the real, acid test for values, company culture and integrity.

Following your values when it costs you money can be counter-intuitive because we are programmed to think short-term in business. 

But when you make policy decisions that are right, but not expedient; when you make tactical decisions that feel good, but cost cash and when you walk away from contracts that would be profitable but feel wrong in the long term – those are the times when you demonstrate you have built and are building something genuinely special and with long term value.

When you make these choices yourself as CEO your team will notice. Initially, they will watch and then they will follow.

Embedding values and culture takes time. But nothing builds long term structural value like company culture. Tactics will change daily, a strategy will be replanned when circumstance or opportunity strikes. But culture is a gift that you give your organisation forever.

You’ll know it’s starting to work when people say “I think this is what you would do”.

You’ll know your job is done when they say “We need to do this because this is who we are.”


Glenn Elliott

Glenn Elliott

Glenn chairs our Entrepreneurs Panel and helps our management teams to grow their businesses. He also mentors our Sherpas. He's a serial entrepreneur and brings two decades of CEO experience to Tenzing. His skills are in product, engineering, sales and marketing and his passions are leadership, company culture, employee engagement and social justice. In 2018, he wrote the Amazon HR Bestseller, Build it: A Rebel Playbook for World-Class Employee Engagement.