Photograph of woman in crowd holding up a placard
Photograph of woman in crowd holding up a placard

In this post, the first in a series of three (otherwise we’ll have a manifesto on our hands) we’ll start by looking at the most recent example of a large corporation that has made a decisive, values-driven decision resulting in a profound impact. When that corporation comprises major players in the aviation industry, a long-term partner of the US government on immigration policies, people listen. Fresh from that example of brand values in action, we delve further into why they matter so much and how to start thinking about your own set of values to work by.


We understand your laws perfectly well. We just don’t agree with them


American Airlines Group Inc and United Continental Holdings Inc, the respective parent companies of American and United airlines, have informed the US government that they will not fly immigrant children separated from their families on their aircraft.


“Based on our serious concerns about this policy and how it’s in deep conflict with our company’s values, we have contacted federal officials to inform them that they should not transport immigrant children on United aircraft who have been separated from their parents,” said United Chief Executive Officer Oscar Munoz, in an emailed statement. A similar statement was issued by Southwest Airlines Co, with other airlines lining up in agreement.


A spokesperson for the department for Homeland Security, Tyler Houlton, was quick to respond via Twitter, arguing it was a matter of law, not understood by the airlines.


“These airlines clearly do not understand our immigration laws and the long-standing devastating loopholes that have caused the crisis at our southern border.”


Yeah, but nah.


The airlines along with a chorus of other businesses and brands in the US (and abroad) absolutely know and understand the immigration laws. But they also see the extreme implementation of them as disheartening and in deep conflict with their company values. And on that basis, refuse to play any role supporting them, as detailed in American Airline’s public statement: We have no desire to be associated with separating families, or worse, to profit from it. We have every expectation the government will comply with our request and we thank them for doing so.


These powerful and impactful examples got us thinking about how businesses and brands think about their sense of purpose, beyond one of profit within the rulebook. In other words, at what point do brands decide to do more than sell their stuff, pay their bills and mind their own business. The short answer to that is when they create and stick to their values. Once the values piece is sorted, the higher sense of purpose can be achieved.


How do we know what we care about? Or in other words, how do we develop our own set of values?


The airline examples demonstrate just how critical it is for companies to develop a set of values they’re willing to operate by. A higher purpose that they are willing to put before company profits based on a moral or ethical belief. That’s bigger than big. That’s putting it on the line. And putting it on the line is not without risk.


There are a growing number of brands who have their values-driven purpose built into their business model. Toilet paper brand Who Gives a Crap, launched through a crowd-funding campaign on the basis of their altruistic mission to donate of 50% of their profits to help build toilets and improve sanitation in the developing world. For the team at Who Gives a Crap, their entire purpose is to reduce number or children who die (currently around 289,000 children under five) each year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by poor water and sanitation. They achieve that by building toilets. And to fund the building of toilets they sell toilet paper to people in the developed world. With these guys, the values came before the product.


Most businesses and brands, however, did not start off on the basis of helping to save lives like the toilet paper guys. Health and medical industry aside, most businesses’ purpose is simply tied up in the problem they are solving – for example, an airline’s purpose is not really to help families stay together, (although it’s a great outcome) but rather to safely and securely transport people from A to B. But in the case of the airlines who defied one of their biggest corporate customer’s request to participate in the process of separating families, it was the values of the company that made the difference.


Number one tip in the development of a set of values: Listen


In most corporate scenarios, the development of a set of company values is born out of employee workshops, stakeholder and customer interviews, competitor research and consumer research. Sometimes, it even comes from the company-wide employee opinion survey (which, on the basis of anonymity, often provides a sobering wake up call to senior management). The point being, values take time and careful consideration – there’s a process and it involves consultation.


Whether it’s a corporation employing thousands of people, or a company of one, having a set of values to help achieve a sense of purpose and identity beyond just profit, matters. It really, really matters.


Talk with and listen to people inside and outside of the company


Carefully sought opinions and a strategic approach to the consideration of what matters to the company and why, is the solid foundation for a set of values that:


A. employees can remember well enough to share with a stranger at a BBQ
B. employees understand the meaning behind the values they are discussing at a BBQ
C. can be easily transferred into meaningful action and impact
D. guide company-wide decision-making
E. act as a magnet for talent
F. are a reflection of not only the place where you want to work, but a reflection of the world you want to live in.


That said, all the hard thinking in the world, doesn’t mean we get it right. Founder and CEO of arguably the world’s least trusted company, Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, started out with a brash company philosophy of ‘move fast and break things’. By 2014, that had philosophy had grown up slightly and evolved to ‘move fast with stable infrastructure.’ Post the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal it’s hard to see how anyone at the company, including the CEO managed to live by that purpose -driven value with even the slightest measure of success. The only thing left to say here is: Watch this space. (insert hope-filled emoticon * here *)


So, there you are. Surrounded by realms of insightful feedback from a varied group of internal and external stakeholders ready to develop a set of values that will define your company. Now what?


We’re glad you asked. Part two in our three-part series unpacks how to craft meaningful values that support your higher purpose – to do better.


Photo credit: Heather Mount