HomeEmployee ExperienceCultureCore values must be at the heart of global organization leadership: Here’s how to identify yours

Core values must be at the heart of global organization leadership: Here's how to identify yours

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Dr Mandeep Rai has traveled to over 180 countries to explore how values define behaviors, relationships, and culture. She shares the importance of values in global organizations and how culture leaders can define their organization’s values

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Values are fundamental for both people and organizations, as they provide a cultural and moral foundation. When there is a strongly held set of values within a company – even if it has offices in many different countries – leaders, as well as team members feel part of something far bigger than just an employment contract.

Throughout my career, I have traveled to over 180 countries exploring how values define behaviors, relationships, and culture. From this, I have identified that they can define a nation’s history and culture and underpin its contribution to global influence and society (and vice versa). I have seen up close how they shape the lives of people, and how individuals and organizations use them to drive much-needed change and evolve into something better than before.

The importance of values at IKEA

Just as values sustain and shape the nations of the world, they are fundamental for leaders, employees and organizations because they provide a shared cultural foundation. This is important across globally dispersed companies, where individuals may come together in teams from many different countries, driven by strong cultures and traditions.

Some of the world’s most influential multinational companies have been through a process to define who they are and what they stand for. In the process of writing The Values Compass; What 101 Countries teach us about Purpose, Life and Leadership, visionary leaders told me they use them to inform decision-making on everything from strategy and sustainability to product innovation and development, and organizational design. 

An example is IKEA, a company I’ve worked with extensively around values for many years. They are the compass that guides IKEA. Company values align seamlessly with those of managers; for example, all managers are committed to ‘giving and taking responsibility’ and ‘leading by example.’ They look to ‘renew and improve,’ constantly looking for new and better ways forward. Although managers from different countries may approach them slightly differently in practice due to cultural norms, these values have the same powerful impact everywhere.

IKEA has become so successful because it distinguished a unique set of values early on which all employees and customers – regardless of global location – can relate to and adopt. At a time their competitors didn’t, IKEA talked loudly and proudly about ‘caring for people and planet,’ ‘cost-consciousness’ and ‘simplicity’ which placed their brand at the forefront of the market. These values are never forgotten. They are on the walls of their stores, prominent in their headquarters and embedded within their products.

Values unite rather than divide

The story of IKEA shows us how values can help us to better understand and connect colleagues within multicultural organizations. They can enable teamwork and growth.

Right now, the world feels polarized. Yet the truth is we are much more similar than we think. When we can unite around them rather than clash over differences, it enables us to speak the same language and work together for the common good.

The source of disputes that are often rooted in a clash of beliefs can be resolved by understanding and empathizing with others. Values provide a neutralizer, offering a mechanism to settle personal dilemmas and make challenging life decisions, by guiding us toward a happier, more successful, and more fulfilling life.

Defining your values

Encouraging all employees and managers in your organization to define their personal values is a great first step towards identifying central organizational values.

The key is for every person to whittle a list down to five intrinsic core values – beliefs they cannot live without. Three key questions asked in the correct setting (in which you cannot lie to yourself), quickly help to define values:

  • Name one of your heroes. You are likely to appreciate the values they display.
  • Think of the last time you felt violated in some way or the first time. You were likely close to a core value then.
  • What would you want said or written in your eulogy? Is this reflected in how you spend your time?

Naturally, these defined values will begin to shape your purpose and inform your actions as a leader. They will allow you to stand tall in decision-making, providing consistency to your teams.

Agree on what you stand for

Often it is extremely powerful to decide as a company, with consensus, what you stand for, whether it be originality, teamwork, or integrity. When you are aligned with core values throughout your organization, your employees and customers can see it.

One approach is to survey all employees around their five core values, as outlined above, identifying what bubbles up consistently. Integrity might be an example. When looking at a united vision or purpose, there may also be many paths or routes to reach the same destination, which brings in creativity, opportunity, and possibility. The reason for establishing five core values rather than one is to ensure there is diversity, while also having focus.

Often a leadership team defines what their organization stands for without input from employees. This quickly filters down. A word of warning, however. A key reason that employees abandon them is when leaders claim to stand for one thing but behave differently. If as a leader, you behave in a way opposed to your values, you are not only lying to your teams, but also yourself.

At an organizational level, getting down to a handful of core values is like defining the DNA of the institution. When you build up from that foundation, you create an ecosystem that shapes an organization, permeating throughout it, congruent across language, reward and recognition metrics, and organizational design.

About Dr Mandeep Rai

Dr Mandeep Rai is a global authority on values and the author of the bestselling book The Values Compass: What 101 Countries Teach Us About Purpose, Life and Leadership. Mandeep has traveled to more than 180 countries and reported as a journalist for the BBC World Service and Reuters, amongst others. She began her career in private banking at JPMorgan and later worked for the United Nations, the European Commission, and grassroots NGOs before setting up the UAE’s first media venture capital fund. Mandeep studied philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE), has an MSc in International Development from the London School of Economics, and completed an MBA at London Business School, with a year at Harvard Business School and MIT. She also holds a PhD in global values.

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