Despite decades of sitting on corporate executive committees and working with hundreds of corporate clients on their cultures, I’m still shocked by how often I hear some version of the following joke. A discussion will be unfolding and a need will arise for someone to name their company’s values. “Trust, Integrity, Discipline…and Apple Pie,” they’ll say with a smirk. This is to say, “our values are nice, but not exactly only ours to claim.”

Therefore, I was delighted to see the rich attention and robust rigor exhibited by many of the companies we interviewed for the Page Society’s newly released white paper, Corporate Character: How Leading Companies are Defining, Activating & Aligning Values.

We define Corporate Character as “the unique identity that distinguishes each enterprise – the characteristics that define its very nature.” It is what sets companies apart, keeps them ahead of and separate from competitors, weathers business cycles, and survives trends. Abstract in nature, it presents itself through culture. It is for this reason that many leading companies (such as General Electric, Walgreens, General Motors, & Best Buy, to name a few) are actively working on defining and communicating behaviors that reflect their corporate character, establishing corresponding training programs, incorporating these behaviors into performance evaluations, and developing complementary awards & recognition programs to reinforce their preeminence. The behaviors these cultures generate are a company’s most important ingredient for enduring success.

So, if we want to produce hyper-specific and highly differentiated behaviors that reflect our unique corporate characters, I’ve always wondered why so many companies have the “apple pie” values I hear joked about over and over. Based on our findings, I’m optimistic that in the future, fewer and fewer will.

As the paper notes, one key finding is that, “Organizations did not undertake changes in their values lightly, and the level of definition or redefinition varied widely.” Yet, two significant trends emerged:

  • Frequently, refreshing of values statements made them shorter and more action oriented.
  • Companies are giving greater attention to the wording of values, frequently putting descriptions around them to provide greater context and meaning

Cultures emanate first and foremost from values. If we seek to build cultures that set us apart, we need values that go beyond apple pie. We need values that are specific, meaningful, and kinetic. It seems like we’re collectively wising up on this front, and that’s very encouraging news!

As with all Page initiatives, many people contributed to the final report. I’m very grateful to each and they’re acknowledged in the document. However, one above all turned a great idea into reality. Special thanks go to my co-chair Helen Ostrowski whose great thinking, relentless determination and deep passion led us to push ourselves toward what I know to be a stronger outcome.

Helen, thanks for modeling every day what it means to put one’s values into action!