A Guide to Leading with Values

In crises, translating purpose and values into actions isn’t just good PR. It reinforces what companies stand for.

The world is upside down (for you and all your employees) and it’s difficult to know which way to go. Here, we outline those companies whose values have successfully helped them to navigate this crisis, and how they are informing their approach to long-term decision making and working to galvanize the workforce.  

Values under pressure 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the world and how it operates. First and foremost, it is a human and social crisis, affecting millions of people and upending lives. It has also had a significant and ever-growing impact on businesses and the global economy.

We have seen businesses respond to the crisis in several ways – which can have lasting implications for their company. For example, CVS Health provided bonuses to employees who were required to be at CVS facilities to assist patients and customers, as well as helping employees with child and elder care needs. They also plan to hire an additional 50,000 full-time, part-time and temporary employees, filling many of the roles with existing CVS Health clients who have had to furlough workers, including Hilton and Marriott. Recognizing their employees’ commitment, as well as proactively supporting their needs, helped employees to feel acknowledged and respected during these uncertain times.

Amazon, on the other hand, has squelched efforts by employees to seek rights and benefits that protect them and their customers and has been secretive about existing cases – diminishing trust and creating dissonance with employees and customers.

Why the difference? It comes down to how leadership translates their values into action. It’s often in times of crisis – when companies are forced to make difficult decisions – that their true priorities are shown. COVID-19 has provided an intense microscope into organizations’ values and how they guide their actions. Some have struggled, keeping their values as words on a page and leaving their people in the dark. While others have thrived – bringing their values to life as they manage the short-term needs of their employees with the long-term commitments of various stakeholders. This balance requires bringing stakeholders into the decision-making, being transparent in how decisions are made, and proving commitment through new skills, processes and rituals. Organizations are a macrocosm of people, and to truly lead with values across the organization, we must align how employees are equipped, governed, and engaged.

Translating your values for a crisis

Values should guide leaders through decisions, particularly difficult ones, that can determine the future of the organization. Getting them right can galvanize the workforce around what is really important (e.g., working together, being human, adapting), and can be pivotal in a company’s survival and growth over the long term.

Times of turbulence provide a unique opportunity for leaders to evaluate how their values actually show up. Understanding what the values need to do versus what they actually do can help leadership translate them into more meaningful guides for employees. What do themes like ‘transparency’ mean during a period of extreme change? How do themes like ‘caring’ show up when thousands of workers may need to be furloughed or endure extreme work conditions?

“It’s often in times of crisis – when companies are forced to make difficult decisions – that their true priorities are shown.”

We’ve seen companies use their values to guide positive actions. With a significant impact on the food and beverage industry due to the coronavirus, Starbuck’s CEO Kevin Johnson led with their values, “creating a culture of warmth and belonging” and “acting with courage” in an open letter to US employees. First, the company committed to pay all employees for 30 days, whether they chose to come to work or not. Second, the company recognized that re-opening stores would look different across the country, and empowered local leaders to make the decision of when to reopen, with the support of tools and resources.

Ensuring employees are equipped with skills and behaviors to live the values

In times of crisis, situations can change daily, if not hourly. Employees need to feel they are equipped with the right skills and behaviors to deliver on the values as circumstances change, and where new skills might be needed. For example, if an organization prioritizes innovation, are new skills needed to collaborate virtually? For companies that prioritize community and impact, are new skills needed to deliver that impact during the crisis? For behaviors, companies should be as specific as possible about how values should translate in different settings and situations to make sure they’re clear what’s allowed in times of crisis and what’s expected of them to provide better service.

Kering Group, a multinational luxury group, translated their skills in production from runway looks to face masks, while ensuring strict measures to protect staffs’ health. Shifting their capabilities to provide supplies needed by healthcare workers to combat the growing number of coronavirus cases demonstrated Kering’s value around caring more than a poster ever could.

Of course, these skills and resources need to be balanced with the reality of your business, but when runway looks aren’t needed and there is employee capacity, turning to values can have an important impact on many.

Creating processes that reflect your values

To ensure employees can deliver on values without fear or friction, the proper processes and governance need to be in place. Consistency is key here as processes should be applied consistently and at all levels. Where there are inconsistencies, it’s important to be transparent about why those choices are being made.

During times of crisis, existing processes may need to be adapted. Employee evaluations and competencies may need to be rethought to align with how the nature of an organization’s work has changed. Some organizations may find they need to inject new processes, such as implementing new customer support guidelines, to empower employees to make decisions aligned with their values. Others may find that some processes might need to be paused to help remove the red tape or bureaucratic procedures that typically slow organizations down and prevent employees from making values-led decisions quickly. Making changes like eliminating unnecessary layers of approval can actually turn times of crisis into catalysts for change.

For example, the biopharmaceutical company Gilead, has put its values of integrity and accountability first. They have worked with regulatory authorities, adapting processes to establish additional expanded access programs for remdesivir, their investigational medicine for COVID-19. Gilead adapted their approach to ensure they could help accelerate the process of providing remdesivir to severely ill patients, who could potentially benefit from the treatment. By leading with their values, Gilead has been able to balance the need for urgent action to save lives with the responsibility to do so safely.

Helping employees feel the values through rituals

During times of crisis, employees often feel confused and overwhelmed so it should be a priority of the leadership to communicate just how valued they truly are. This can be brought to life in meaningful and human ways by reinforcing values through stories, new rituals, or shifts in incentives. Even small changes like reminding employees to stretch, take lunch breaks, or meditate can help employees feel the values with themes like teamwork, selflessness, and respect.

It is important to maintain existing rituals, where possible, to show continuity. New rituals may also be needed to deliver on values in new ways. At Prophet, we have transitioned our office happy hours, pulse checks, and even office-wide events to virtual platforms. Continuing these rituals and providing a platform for employees to share personal stories has brought Prophet’s values of “Fearlessly Human, Unexpectedly Irreverent” and “Enjoying the Ride” to life – demonstrating humanity and empowering employees to bring their whole selves to the table. Positive behaviors and rituals such as these are productive changes that can be good to maintain, even after normalcy returns.


Now, more than ever, it is critical for leaders to be true to their values and work harder to enable the organization to live those values by aligning skills, processes, and rituals. Doing so will empower employees to take values-led actions. Here are some steps to take:

  1. Take a hard look at your values. Ask yourself what your organization really values. And how that manifests itself in difficult situations. Are you comfortable with the answer?
  2. Consider how your values come to life throughout your culture. What skills, processes, and rituals need to evolve to ensure you’re living your values?
  3. Deliver consistently – not just every time, but at all levels and in all situations. Living your values “only sometimes” diminishes all your values.

Interested to learn more about how to keep your employees inspired and engaged during challenging times? Get in touch.