Are values relevant in this day and age?

25 May

One of our Ocean Brand&Culture team posted a blog last week on how, in our opinion, the values poster is killing internal culture ( One of the questions posed by a reader of that post asked if organisational values are still relevant in this day and age?

Recently I spent several days in the company of thirteen other business owners. Their businesses covered a broad range of sectors and sizes. Every year this same group of owners get together on a retreat where we share our stories, from the previous 12 months - the good, the bad, and often the ugly. I’m always amazed by the honesty and openness that everyone brings to the table.

This year, I had a particular discussion which got me thinking about the use of values, and more broadly if growing a positive culture actually holds you back?

My friend, lets call him Steve, runs a pretty successful nationwide business (for non-New Zealanders reading this, ‘pretty successful’ means ‘very successful’ when translated out of Kiwi) that employs around 120 people, many of whom come from challenging socio-economic backgrounds. Steve has put huge amounts of time, resources and care into building an amazing, and award winning culture.

Recently though, one part of his business has performed badly. Sales have fallen through the floor. As he rather eloquently put it. It’s not just bleeding, it’s hemorrhaging cash. And if this continues it may drag down the entire business.

The clearcut business decision would appear to be simple.

Steve, however is really torn. He has spent years building a caring culture, and investing significant time and resources in to nurturing and growing his people. He has turned lives around. If he does need to let people go, will this compromise his integrity and his values? Having been a ethical leader, would making a dramatic decision that could affect many lives show him up to be a hypocrite? And his values as being shallow and fair weather?

One of the cornerstone examples of the importance of organisational values is illustrated by the Johnson and Johnson Tylenol scandal. In the space of a few days in 1982, seven people died in the Chicago area after taking cyanide-laced capsules of Extra-Strength Tylenol, Johnson and Johnson’s best-selling product at the time. Johnson & Johnson made the decision to pull the products off shelves USA wide. It was the largest product recall in US history (at that time). The company was able to make this decision quickly with the full support of its people. It could do this, it is claimed, due to its company values – its credo of commitment. Johnson and Johnson people “put the needs and well-being of the people we serve first”.

Pulling Tylenol off the shelves cost over $100 million dollars back in 1982, but potentially saved countless lives. It was the right thing to do. And customers acknowledged this as it quickly regained sales. There are many similar examples of large companies, who got this right – and some who got it very wrong, as Volkswagon’s recent tribulations attest.

But how does this help Steve? He is after all the owner of a business significantly smaller than a large US corporate.

As we talked Steve remembered the time he received a phone call from a woman who had witnessed an event that one of his staff had been involved in. What he thought was going to be a complaint turned out to be a massive compliment. His staff member had assisted and then comforted a child that was being attacked by other kids, and disrupting Auckland’s traffic at peak hour while doing so. The staff member had acted in way consistent with Steve’s company values. Steve was reminded that his values are authentic and are lived day to day in his business.

Steve realised I think that whatever decision he makes, his values will help him in the way he first faces up to this challenge, and then manages the implications of his decision. He realised that his values will guide him.

At Ocean, as owner and CEO I’ve had moments like these. Times when I’ve made decisions that have upset individuals and disrupted families and lives. Have I always done it well? No. I haven’t. If there is a good way to do this I’m yet to learn how. What I have always tried to do, is to treat the affected individual with real respect (one of our Ocean values) and care.

If your company faced a situation like Steve’s, how would it respond? Would your organisational values guide your company or you in making the right decision? Would they help you manage the situation? Or are your values what we at Ocean call ‘tick-box’ values? Values that sound great, make everyone feel good, but when push comes to shove are essentially ineffectual?

My parting question therefore is: if you have tick box values, perhaps its time to take stock and relook at them.

Image sourced from Thanks!