It’s that time of year again when the news and social media posts are dominated by heartfelt quotes, well-meaning advice, and inspirational anecdotes aimed at helping you move forward in your work and life in a positive way. But as we all know, just deciding to do something different doesn’t mean it will magically manifest itself. How can you make significant changes stick to create the life you want?
My challenge to all of you is to put aside empty promises and focus instead on operating from core values, which enable transformative change at both the individual and organizational levels.
What are values?
Over the past 25 years, I have traveled to more than 180 different countries seeking to understand how values define behaviors, impact relationships, and inform culture. Through this work, I discovered that values permeate a nation’s history and culture and underpin its contribution to global society and influence (and vice versa). I have seen up close how values shape people’s lives and how individuals, communities and organizations harness them to drive much-needed change and evolution.
Examples of values that characterize countries (and that may equally apply to individuals or organizations) include English constancyChinese pragmatism and we entrepreneurship. Equality it is the value that represents Denmark, the idea that people should aspire to be more similar than different, whereas before there was a hint of war which I had already identified Liberty as a key value for Ukraine. Other values include faith (India), forgiveness (South Africa), harmony (Malaysia), hospitality (Turkey) and positivity (Peru).
A great idea that has helped shape my thinking about the meaning of values is from Mahatma Gandhi, who said:
Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words
Your words become your actions
Your actions become your habits.
Your habits become your values
Your values become your destiny
Gandhi was talking about how values can become the driving force behind everything you say and do and every decision you make.
Throughout our lives, we face a myriad of choices, challenges, and opportunities that reveal our motivations and character. These can range from life-changing defining moment type choices to the regular pace of smaller, less dramatic decisions. Big or small aside, each individual decision is informed by our values, working on our subconscious.
Despite your best efforts, and no matter how fervent your desire, it will be almost impossible to achieve transformative change without understanding and appreciating your core values and those of the people around you. Values help explain your life, because they were planted in us as children, nurtured during adolescence, and nurtured and pollinated throughout adulthood.
It is important to note that beliefs divide, but values can unite. For example, dispute often stems from a clash of beliefs, but values can foster tolerance, foster understanding, and promote inclusion, leading to a happier, more successful, and fulfilling life.
Building values within our organizations
while typing The value compassIn addition to speaking with national leaders and influencers, I spoke with business visionaries who shared with me how values influence everything from corporate strategy to innovation and product development, and from employee engagement to organizational design.
Defining your core set of values is critical for leaders, employees, and organizations because values provide a shared cultural foundation. For example, my research found that a company with a clear purpose and strong values is more likely to attract and retain loyal employees and loyal customers.
One example is former Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga, who focuses on the bottom of the pyramid; financial inclusion and growth for all. This is demonstrated through the areas that Mastercard chooses to focus time, energy and resources, creating a virtuous circle.
Then there’s Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh, whose personal values of empathy, integrity, courage, and originality align with the values Levi Strauss & Co has followed since its founding in 1873. Bergh has spoken many times about the compatibility of values, and on the need for companies that are “committed to a moral compass and to doing the right thing.”
Whenever there are organizations with core values like these, the people they are drawn to, whether they are leaders, colleagues, or customers, feel like they are part of something bigger. And whatever tomorrow brings an uncertain future, when we lead worth-capable lives, transformative change occurs, at all levels.
How do I identify my values?
So how do you move from arbitrary decision-making to a place where your personal values underpin and inform your decisions, relationships, and priorities? Here are four easy steps to achieve this change:
1. Make a list of 15-20 values that you think are important to you. Start by writing them on small cards. A guide to some of these can be found in my book the compass of values, which analyzes the values of 101 countries around the world. This could be a useful tool to identify the values that resonate best.
2. Narrow down the list.Group similar values/themes together to identify key themes. Narrow your list down to about five core values, which are intrinsic to you—beliefs you cannot live without. You may want to use the following questions to help identify your core values, but be sure to ask yourself in the right setting and answer honestly.
- When were you really happy in your life or career? What was present at that moment? What needs were being met and how? It is likely that a fundamental value was recognized.
- When have you felt really wronged in your life or career? Why did you feel like this? It is likely that a core value was being threatened.
- What would you like to include in your eulogy? Is this reflected in how you spend your time? If not, you need to better incorporate this value into your life.
If it helps you, you can also get guidance from the people closest to you: family, friends, colleagues.
3. Examine the values again.Think carefully about each value, considering how you would feel if it were compromised. Ultimately, your core values should be the ones you would fight to uphold under any circumstances.
Naturally, these defined values will begin to shape your purpose for the coming year (and possibly the rest of your life), as the values build your mission and inform your actions. They allow you to be in your power and trust your decision-making, providing consistency and continuity to your organization, teams, and supporters.
4. Rank your values in order of priority for 2023. Right now, with a new year stretching out before you, which of these values is helping you identify your priorities? Which value is most relevant to where you are now? This will bring focus and power.
You will need to repeat this exercise at regular intervals throughout your life (I recommend once a year) and during times of change and disruption. If he has chosen well, it is unlikely that his core values will change, but the priorities he sets against them almost certainly will. And different values will have different meanings at various times in your life.
Once you have your values clearly defined, the hard thinking is done: There’s no excuse for saying you don’t know what you want this year, or in life, or how to make tough decisions.
Organizations can also define values
This process to define core values can be done at both the organizational and individual levels. In fact, many of the world’s leading organizations go through a similar process to define who they are and what they stand for. For example, global management consultancy McKinsey sets aside one day each year to reflect as a group on what their values mean for their work and lives, then updating them in small ways to reflect changing times.
London Business School itself is a values-driven organization that aims to “make a profound impact on the way the world does business”. Through campaigns like Always ahead – which is built on the four pillars of scholarship, research, innovation and learning environment – LBS aims to innovate and generate ideas that can positively influence and help leaders support each other in an ever-changing landscape.
At the organizational level, coming up with a handful of core values is like discovering the DNA of the institution. And when you build on that foundation, you create an ecosystem that shapes an organization, with consistent behaviors, language, ways of working, reward and recognition metrics, and organizational design.
One approach you may want to take in your own organization is to survey your employees on their five core values, grouping similar themes together. Five values, rather than just one, will encourage diversity while ensuring clarity and focus. It can be extremely powerful to decide as a company, with consensus, what you choose to represent in the new year, whether it be originality, empathy, teamwork, integrity, or innovation. And when you’re aligned around a set of core values, your employees and customers will see it, and your organization will thrive.
This year, my hope is that you choose to make 2023 a truly transformational year, one in which you identify and operate from your core values. This will foster positive and lasting change throughout your organization, bring your employees and customers closer together, and be your legacy.