Generic Values = Generic Culture

Most companies have a set of values. Most of these stated values are generic and quite frankly, meaningless.

Take this test. Pull out a copy of your organization’s values – remove your company name and logo from it. Replace it with another company name. Does it work for them? Could it apply to that company? If so, then your company values are not distinct enough to have meaning and value. A company like a person needs to have unique values similar to your personal values which cannot easily be shared by anyone else. This is important because the culture of your company is a reflection of what the company values – it guides employee behavior and decision making. The more generic the values, the more difficult it is for employees to know what to do or how to represent the company that is in alignment with the culture.

 For example, here are the values of a company:

Communication – We have an obligation to communicate. Here, we take the time to talk with one another… and to listen. We believe that information is meant to move and that information moves people.

Respect – We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment.

Integrity – We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly, and sincerely. When we say we will do something, we will do it; when we say we cannot or will not do something, then we won’t do it.

Excellence– We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do. We will continue to raise the bar for everyone. The great fun here will be for all of us to discover just how good we can really be.

These values sound good. Communication. Respect. Integrity. Excellence. These could be taken straight from those inspirational posters from the 80s (and we still see on many corporate walls), like “Teamwork” along with the picture of people all rowing in the same direction. These values could possibly apply to your company and many others – and that’s the issue.

The values above are from Enron as stated in their 2000 annual report (page 53). At its height, Enron employed nearly 22,000 people, was one of the largest energy companies in the world, and was named “America’s most innovative companies” for six consecutive years by Fortune magazine. The company went bankrupt and executives were sent to prison, as they were found to be involved in corporate corruption and accounting fraud, which further led to the dissolution of their auditing firm, Arthur Andersen. Their culture did not reflect their values.

 Another example:

  • Deliver WOW Through Service

  • Embrace and Drive Change

  • Create Fun and A Little Weirdness

  • Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded

  • Pursue Growth and Learning

  • Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication

  • Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit

  • Do More With Less

  • Be Passionate and Determined

  • Be Humble

Many of you may have guessed who this is by the very first line of “Deliver WOW Through Service” – it’s Zappos. You would be hard pressed to apply these values as a whole to any other company. They are unique, well thought out, and truly reflect the culture of their company. They also drive decision making and corporate strategy, as a result, this is their brand.

Unique values are important – but that’s not enough.

Which brings us to the second important point of ensuring your company has unique values – they must be applied. No matter how prominently your values are communicated or placed in big lettering on a wall for all to see – if they are not used as a guide and applied to every important decision your company makes, then it was a waste of time to even have had them developed. It’s akin to spending time and money on a lot of research or strategic planning, to only have this nice binder sit on a shelf gathering dust.

Even a great mission and vision statement are not enough. They are important in helping everyone understand why they do what they do and where it will take them. The values are about how it will get done. Google’s mission statement is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” That’s clear. But how are they going to work together to achieve that mission? That’s where their values come in. They have defined it as the “ten things we know to be true” which include:

  • It’s best to do one thing really, really well

  • Fast is better than slow

  • You can make money without doing evil

  • You can be serious without a suit

  • Great just isn’t good enough


Unique and authentic values that are lived are fundamental to a strong and distinguished brand and will help attract and retain the type of talent that is valued in your organization.

Is the culture of your company what you want it to be? Do your employees know what to do when a challenge arises or an important decision needs to be made without having to look it up in a handbook or convening a meeting? If not, it may be time to rethink what your company values and incorporate them into how work gets done.