How Far are You Willing to Go for Your Values?

By Matthew Landkamer

Most organizations have stated company values, but few of them truly activate those values in their work. In fact, I have heard leaders scoff at the notion of values, and wonder why they even belong in a strategic plan. Other leaders, like Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia clothing company, make their values central to the company’s brand.

As a strategy consultant, I often help my clients wrestle with defining their values. That conversation usually begins with a discussion of why having values is important for an organization, why they are necessary in a strategic plan, and how they can be used by the organization going forward.

I also have a few key examples I like to use of what Patrick Lencioni would call “willingness to be punished for your values.” In his book The Advantage, Lencioni argues convincingly that what passes for a set of values at most organizations is watered-down pablum that could be claimed by almost any organization. He puts forward the idea of “core values”—those values that are true, that the organization can say they do better than almost any other organization in their space, and those that the organization is willing to be punished for.

Rarely have I seen as good an example as on the recent homepage of Patagonia. On December 5, 2017, amidst the rush of the holiday shopping season, Patagonia gave the homepage of its website over to a political statement protesting the reduction of the area of the Bears Ears National Monument by the Trump Administration. Not only did this act risk offending some of Patagonia’s customers in this divided political climate, but it also was a barrier placed between the website visitor and the product. There’s no question in my mind that this cost Patagonia sales that day, and in subsequent days.

And yet, this is absolutely consistent with the way Patagonia has behaved in the past, and with how we can expect them to behave in the future. In late January of 2018, a letter from Yvon Chouinard, the founder and CEO of the company, was published in which he refused an invitation to explain Patagonia’s position to the House Natural Resources Committee. In February, they launched Patagonia Action Works, a platform to connect their customers to their grantees in order to amplify their ability to take action on issues Patagonia cares about. In the past, Patagonia has published ads encouraging people to NOT buy their products. They have begun selling used Patagonia gear in their shops, and buying back used gear to fill those shelves. Their clothes and gear are more expensive than many outdoor brands, in large part because of the ethical employment and manufacturing practices they insist upon.

Time and again, Patagonia has taken positions that will actively limit their profits. Paradoxically, this may be a key to their success. Many of their customers, myself included, are willing to pay extra to buy Patagonia gear when we need it, because we know that those dollars we spend support a company that aligns with our values, and because they have demonstrated that their values are truly core to what they stand for as an organization. We know they won’t claim to be defenders of the environment while polluting a river next to their factory.

By way of another example, REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.) posted a statement protesting the Bears Ears Monument decision on their website the same day as Patagonia’s Bears Ears statement, but it was part of a carousel of homepage images, and wasn’t literally blocking access to the site in the same way that Patagonia’s had. They were willing to put a stake in the ground, but they didn’t double down on it the way Patagonia did. (To be fair, REI has begun to close its stores on Black Friday, encouraging their employees and customers to go outdoors rather than participate in the orgy of capitalism that day has become—another example of being willing to accept punishment for their values. How many dollars in sales do they give up on Black Friday?)

Another recent example that comes to mind is Liz Uihlein, the owner of Uline, an office and packing supply company. She penned a letter encouraging her customers to give Trump a chance, early in his Administration. But she published it on the last page of a thick catalog—a catalog that comes with alarming frequency and which likely gets discarded or recycled before the vast majority of its recipients read to the end. Was she willing to be punished for her values? She might have lost some customers, but did she inspire, among those who agree with her, the lifelong devotion that a brand like Patagonia has?

To be sure, politics isn’t the only opportunity for an organization to demonstrate its core values. There are great lessons drawn from other contexts as well: Southwest Airlines has famously defended its value of fun. Steve Jobs, for better or for worse, was uncompromising on design criteria for Apple products. For years, Google lived by the maxim, “don’t be evil”. And Starbucks even (awkwardly) attempted to use its ubiquitous cups to begin conversations about race. All of these organizations have been very public about what they stand for, and I believe it’s generally been good for them.

It’s important to have core values, and they are not generally as explicitly stated and demonstrated to customers in the way the Patagonia, REI, and Uline examples were—nor do they need to be. But here’s where they do need to show up: to your employees. If your team doesn’t understand the values of the organization and have a way to use them to describe their experience as an employee—and as a frame for their interactions with co-workers and customers—you aren’t using values to their full advantage. And if your employees don’t see the leaders of the organization as willing to take value-based risks, they wouldn’t be wrong to question how truly those values are held.