Yesterday on Radio 4 I heard someone say that Gordon Brown wants Britain to have a national motto and a statement of core values. With a sinking heart, I did a quick search and discovered that the government has quietly dropped the idea of the motto but it is going ahead with the values statement.
Vision statements, mission statements and core values have been fashionable in the corporate world for some years now. Which is exactly why I don’t want to see something similar applied to the country. Why do politicians think that everything companies do must be applied to the public sphere too? If they looked into it in any depth, they would discover little, if any, evidence that such statements have any impact on corporate performance.
Usually, they are crafted by groups of executives on away days. I remember going to one where there were ten senior managers, all on large salaries, trying to draw up a vision and core values statement. What we eventually came up with was a set of bland statements that could have applied to any company in the same sector. All the feeling and meaning had been wordsmithed out of it so as to make it meaningful to everyone. Well, actually, it was to avoid saying anything that the Chairman and the board might find controversial, but no-one would admit that. The whole thing was completely meaningless and cost a fortune. Ten executives’ salaries for two days, plus travel expenses and the hire of hotel rooms, just to come up with a few anodyne words.
Mission statements often end up as something like “To be the best (insert industry sector) company in (the UK/Europe/the world). They are usually supported by an equally meaningless set of corporate values, which managers then exhort people to ‘live out’. (In this video, an executive even sings about “living out our core values”. Ugh!) The vision, mission and values are then put on laminated charts, posters, office equipment and post-it notes, to be spread around the organisation like confetti. Six months later, they have become part of the furniture. No-one notices them, everyone has stopped talking about them and, you can be sure, no-one is ‘living them out’.
The organisations that spend the most time trying to write these statements are usually the ones that are in the most trouble. Successful and self-confident companies are too busy going out there and doing what they are good at to spend too much time on such things.
Perhaps the same applies to countries. British people created an industrial revolution and built an empire without having a statement of core values. Whether or not you approve of what they did, there can be no doubt that those who led British industry and government in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had incredible self-belief. They would have laughed at the idea of writing down core values. There simply wasn’t time. They had lands to conquer and factories to build. Notice that China doesn’t feel the need to draw up a statement of values. Is our sudden interest in such things a symptom of our national decline?
Like the corporate versions, a national statement of values will be an expensive waste of time. It will be so bland that it will be meaningless to most people, even those who write the thing. Values statements often become an embarrassment to chief executives, in a did-I-really-say-that sort of way. This will be no different. It will make Britain look stupid and desperate to the rest of the world.
Don’t do it Gordon. For a change, look at the corporate world with a critical eye. See how silly these core values statements are and spend the money on something useful instead.