Once upon a time there was a company that touted values like integrity and respect. Maybe you’ve heard of it. The company was Enron.

Then there was and still is, Wells Fargo, whose values include doing what’s right for customers, leadership, and ethics. Were these values considered when fake accounts were created? Or were these values simply words on a wall?

If they were only pretty words on a wall, Well Fargo is not alone. Many companies—especially those in financial services, have hollow or permission-to-play values. Their values are not ideals that team members strive to live by, but rather aspirational, non-differentiating words that in reality mean nothing.

That’s why finding core values, which are deeply ingrained principles that guide all team member behavior, are so important. When core values are determined correctly, they are differentiating. They can help make strategic decisions. And they are meaningful.

In our recent work for US Eagle Federal Credit Union, we did an industry overview to see what values were held at other financial institutions. We found that many have values like honesty and integrity.

While honesty and integrity sound nice, these are not core values. In most cases, these kinds of values are permission-to-play values. Instead of being differentiating for the company, these values reflect minimum behavioral standards. (And when they don’t even do that, they are called hollow values.)

Of course you want team members working at a financial institution to have integrity. But values should be cultural cornerstones. Not expected, un-differentiating concepts.

One way to determine the right values for a company is through research. For US Eagle Federal Credit Union, we did a quantitative online study across departments and geographies to determine what team members felt were the values of US Eagle.

During this study, team members were asked to name the current values and whether they were relevant in guiding their behavior. They were also asked about the values they believed were important to serving members, as well as the personal values they brought to work with them every day. This research was critical, since values must come not from nice-sounding ideals, but from the reality of the people living them.

Because values are an important part of an overall brand platform, the research results from the value study were aligned with the chosen positioning direction to determine which key values would have the most impact and reflect the both the people and the new direction of the company. From there, we created new sets values and the executive team used the following criteria to shape and evaluate them:

  • Are they representative of our fundamental beliefs?
  • Will they act as our filters for hiring, evaluating, and firing?
  • Are they well defined so behavioral expectations are clearly understood?
  • Are they inspiring?
  • Are they memorable? (It’s hard to live by a set of values if you can’t remember them.)

This process resulted in a new set of core values for US Eagle that will differentiate, inspire, and guide team member behavior, hopefully serving as a rallying point for all employees in the years to come.

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