Almost every business has a set of values. In fact, almost every business has the same set of values – passion, integrity, and innovation are often top of a predictable list. And many businesses (and the people in them) pay lip service to them at most.

That’s not the case in family businesses. Because the values of the business are so closely linked to the personal values of the family members at the top, they’re often much more fundamental to the way the business operates.

“One of the most exciting things about a family business,” says our principal Gilmar Wendt, “is that it’s not just business for them. They often make decisions which might hurt them commercially in the short term, but which make sense if you think of the big picture, or the long-term view, or the ethos of the business.

“Given that most employees want to do more than just pick up a pay packet, that should be one of the most motivating things about working in a family business, and one of the most attractive things for potential recruits – especially if you believe that this is exactly what the millennials are interested in.”

In fact, according to Sir Alex Reed, founder of the Reed recruitment business, and his son James (now the chairman), 80% of people would rather work with a family-run business, and 80% of people would rather work in one.

But to keep hold of your best people, and attract potential employees and customers, first you need to be clear to what your values actually are.

The problem: when your values are everywhere, but nowhere

Despite their importance to the business, most family-run companies don’t take the time to articulate what their values. Just as with their strategy, family businesses over-estimate how much their employees understand of what’s locked in their leaders’ heads.

And even if you have explained what you stand for, you’ve got to walk the talk. Gilmar says: “There’s no point telling everyone you’re innovative if you stamp on a new idea every time someone comes up with one.”

That’s why the Reeds say they need to be “clear in our values… consistent in our values… [and] true to our values.”

The answer: take your values from implicit to explicit

There are two things family businesses can do to make the most of their values.

First, get them out there. Gilmar says: “It’s often our job to take these brilliant – but implicit – qualities and make them explicit. So the first step is identify what they are. That means teasing them out of the leaders, or maybe running workshops to ask people on the frontline what they think. When we’ve got them, we try to build them into every aspect of the brand and communications.”

Galahad Clark, of family-owned shoe brand Vivo Barefoot talked on our podcast about how he hard he tries to make sure their people live and breathe their values. “We’re trying make sure our values are embedded in the business. We have periods of a few months where we focus on one of our three values, and as much as we can that goes right into the stores and onto the shop floor. And we make a conscious effort for our values to come through in our marketing.”

As Gilmar says, “Communications on its own isn’t enough. The last thing we want is a set of values you only ever see in a brand guideline. So we often train up a team of ‘brand ambassadors’ (like we did at ZGS). It’s their job in turn to train up colleagues and make sure the values get thought about in every aspect of how the business is run.

“That includes the difficult stuff like internal processes, or how you manage and evaluate people. When you do this right, you don’t just have a team of champions, you have a whole company of them, making sure what’s special about that business is always being reinforced and expressed, and that everyone feels part of something that’s bigger than themselves.”

Full series: Five ways family businesses can flourish

Over the years, we’ve been lucky enough to work with a number of family-owned and family-run businesses. At their best, they have strengths other businesses struggle to match. But you can also have too much of a good thing; those very strengths can be the cause of problems that stop some family businesses being as successful as they deserve to be. So we’re looking at five of those conundrums, and sharing what we’ve learnt about how to tackle them.​

And we’re recording a series of podcasts to accompany them. Listen here.

Part one: Why you need freedom and focus
Part two: Why growing also means growing up
Part three: Why old dogs need new tricks
Part five: Why values are so valuable

We’d love to help you build your family business. If you think we can help, get in touch here

Joseph Harries is Design Director at GW+Co