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For the Greater Good

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I spent an afternoon with an Executive team recently that brought something into focus that I’ve been troubled by more than once. The discussion around the table was on a proposal to refresh the organisation’s branding, which included an internal and external communication component.

The tension that was playing out (mostly between the Marketing Director and HR Director) was about whether the audience for the organisation’s core values ought to be internal (employees) or external (clients, potential employees and other stakeholders). The organisation had articulated a set of core values many years ago, that proudly appeared in its annual report and on its website.

We’d also recently conducted an Alignment Audit that generated some very robust data telling us:

  1. Employees perceived some core values to be strongly evident in everything they did.
  2. Some other things (not formally articulated as core values and not particularly useful or constructive) were actually valued very much.
  3. Finally, some things listed as core values were not seen to be valued at all.


Organisations often confuse actual deeply held core values with aspirations, things they believe that it’s important to value, or want to be seen to value, but that aren’t (yet) commonly demonstrated.

I’m dismayed when Boards and/or Executive teams head off on a retreat and subsequently bring down, like Moses from the mountain, a list of bold and worthy words that are declared forthwith, as the organisation’s core values.

Jim Collins, one of the most authoritative researchers on the creation of a core ideology, including values warns us not to…


“mix future aspirations into your true and authentic core values, as this will create justifiable cynicism and destroy the power of your core values”.



When working with values, make sure you employ these four simple principles:

  • Before asking people to consider organisational values, have them complete an individual core values elicitation first. Otherwise you find people fighting for the inclusion of values that may be critically important to them, but may or may not be part of the organisation’s DNA.
  • Don’t confuse your current core values (what is already, tangibly and demonstrably valued) with your aspirational values (those we need to value in order to be successful but are not yet consistently demonstrated).
  • It’s OK to want these things and to diligently work to embed them but don’t included them (yet) in a statement of core values, it just confuses people. Such elements are better placed as part of an envisioned future, the description of what you’re striving to achieve and become.
  • Be honest with people about what is valued and what is not. Recognise where currently somethings are valued (in system & process, climate & culture) that are not reflective of what is espoused and other things that ought to be valued, currently are not. Then invite them to work with you to identify these gaps, work out which ones are getting in the way of the things we want to achieve and help you do something to change it.


Author, Marshall Cowley, Senior Consultant, Dattner Group