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.

The Wells Fargo Culture Problem

photo by Gabriella Demczuk for the New York Times

photo by Gabriella Demczuk for the New York Times

The Wells Fargo Bank scandal of opening millions of secret accounts without customers’ permission is an issue of culture. 

Within the financial services industry, the retail business of Wells Fargo was always admired and in many ways was viewed as the gold standard because of their profitability. Much of that profitability had to do with retention of their clients and the income generated from the multiple accounts their customers had with the bank.  It’s a no-brainer, the more products and services you have with a bank, or for that matter, almost any company, correlates directly to more revenue.

Yes, what they did was not only wrong, but illegal. We’ll let the federal government and the mass of regulators and lawyers figure out what to do with that. The fundamental issue is that their pursuit of profits outweighs their values. And it’s how well a company lives up to its values that determines the culture. 

Doing what’s right for the customer, is a core value of Wells Fargo (as found in their Vision & Values brochure). Specifically stating, “One of our top priorities is protecting customers’ confidential data and information. Customers trust us to use that information to provide them with products and services that can save them time and money. They expect us to help guide them, help grow and protect their financial assets, and help them succeed financially. Our focus on customers is unwavering. That is how we have been doing business for more than 160 years and is the key to our future.”

When a company’s values, mission, or vision statement, are just words and not lived and followed, the result is what happened here. The brand is weakened. Do you remember Enron? They had awesome values. Unfortunately, they were also just words. Additionally, the entire banking industry will suffer a bit from the increased lack of trust many customers feel when they think of banks.

For a bank to be making money is not a bad thing. I hope they continue to do so and do it well. The ability to deposit a check from your phone, travel to another part of the world and get cash out of an ATM, and other services we may now take for granted are impressive. It also costs a lot to develop and support these services. However, customers are only willing to pay for them if they see the value and if they know the bank is watching out for them. Though – they have to make that decision, the bank cannot make it for them. 

What Wells Fargo forgot is that they do not define their brand nor do they determine who chooses to do business with them. A company’s brand is what their customers say it is. The brand is not only the products and services a company provides, but how well they actually live up to the standards they promote.