If you have values at the core of what you do, as a business with purpose, a charity or a social enterprise, the irony is that it is all the more common to overlook how to make those values work for you.

It is as if a gifted up-and-coming footballer were encouraged to train and focus on their image rights and sponsorship deals, rather than their free kicks, passing, and goals.

Values have to be owned and loved – for starters, at board level.

So here are five questions that any board can ask on organisational values.

Hands holding balloons that spell Values


1. How well do we bring our values to life?

Values should set the tone for the business - to motivate staff and volunteers, to guide what people do and attract new members.

One great example of being imaginative is the educational company Build-A-Bear. Their six core values, which are used internally in the workplace, include Colla-bear-ate and Cele-bear-ate. “Di-bear-sity,” the last value to be added, was named through a company-wide contest.

The company, which has a majority of women at staff, manager and executive level, has been named one of the top ten business employers on diversity in the USA. In line with the bear stuffing that children do in the Build-A-Bear workshops, the company says, “the good stuff is the stuff inside”.

2. Do we know if we live up to our values?

There are proprietary specialist values surveys, such as the Values Inventory or from Barrett.

But surveys tend to assess perceptions, so they can’t tell the whole story.

One way to assess and learn about how you are doing is through third party assurance, such as accreditation against quality standards. There is no shortage of options when it comes to values, from Stonewall and Employers Forum on Disability through to the Fair Tax Mark.

3. Do our leaders lead on values?

The easiest way to destroy a positive culture is when the leaders behave in ways that undermine it.

Values start around the boardroom table. A code of conduct for board members is now standard and a good place to integrate values and expected behaviours. Board members need to distinguish between their personal values and the core values set for the business as a whole.

But starting with the board doesn’t mean that values should be top-down. The best form of governance is enabling rather than controlling. So, if you are making a list of expertise you want on your board, then an understanding of organisational culture is good to include.

4. Do we promote learning and development on values?

Here at Pilotlight, we have developed a way to establish and encourage values – we call it learning by doing good. We support a network of over 500 business experts across a range of companies who we bring together in teams to provide strategic support and coaching for charity leaders.

For the charities, this is free support, and these skills make a difference. Charities who work with Pilotlight, on average, increase their reach, the number of service users or beneficiaries, by 30% in the two years after the support and their income by 27%.

For our partner businesses, there is also learning, including improved coaching skills, listening skills, empathy, ability to influence and understanding of wider perspectives.

5. Are we open to challenge?

Your core values are what you use to run the business. But your core values may not be the same values as those of stakeholders around you.

There is a need, in short, to recognise many perspectives, not one, to welcome challenges.

The significance of this is profound. In the context we are moving into, of sustainability and complexity, we have to understand values systems and not just values statements.

Written by
Profile picture for user Ed Mayo
Ed Mayo
Chief Executive - Pilotlight