Values, Vision & Entrepreneurial Leadership: Lesson Six

Why You Need a Value Proposition

We’ve talked already about framing your values by creating a sense of possibility and transparency and thinking of your life’s work as a calling. We’ve talked about the importance of values and how to start the process of articulating what really matters. We’ve talked about the importance of a vision. It’s time for the value proposition. I think this is my favorite part of the process because this is what turns an idea into action, a theory into practice, something you think into something you do.

For me a value proposition gets at who you are, what you do and how you do it better. Helping people figure this out is what I do for a living. I’ve done it for a major collegiate athletic conference, a massive real estate project, many restaurant companies, countless marketing organizations and agencies and I’ve done it for my own company.

A value proposition is a priceless business asset — it provides direction for your organization. As you grow, it will provide a connection to your roots and a connection to each other. Done right, it will help you with tough decisions and remind you on the hard days (and there will be many) why you’re in the business that you’re in. Spending the time and effort to get this right is an investment that will pay big dividends. And finally, if you’re ever stuck on how to start a presentation, it’s a great platform for every update you will ever have to provide, every investment document you will ever write and every explanation of financial performance you need to complete.

Here’s the one that inspired me from the beginning. I had the opportunity to work at Darden Restaurants and we had a great way of thinking about the Olive Garden restaurant business: “We’re a family of local restaurants, focused on delighting every guest, with a genuine Italian dining experience.” Before that I led international marketing for Starbucks. There, they called their unifying principle a BHAG, and worked with Jim Collins to get there. Theirs was about coffee but instead about nurturing and inspiring the human spirit. I liked theirs a lot — it made us think big and made it OK to think even bigger — in fact, that’s what they expected of us.

At Olive Garden, the decisions we made were about how we delivered something “genuine Italian” — it meant bruschetta but no nachos (“nachos aren’t Italian, the president of the company used to say’). It meant that when the real estate team designed a new restaurant they literally went to Italy for inspiration. We saw the restaurant general managers as the most important people in the company because they were the ones who made it a family of local restaurants. The word “family” was important because it was what united us as a brand. So you can see that every word in our value proposition was really critical.

The best value propositions define a point of competitive advantage and they are directive enough to help govern decisions. In the last lesson we talked about running a homeless shelter and trying to decide if you were going to provide emergency temporary beds for a night or transitional housing. If you had a value proposition that said something like “we are a community organization, providing temporary emergency short-term housing, to people in need within Smith County,” it’s pretty clear what you do. It will help you one the days when you are tempted to move beyond your mission.

Keep them as simple and clear as possible. The more complicated, the less helpful.

The process of getting to a value proposition should include the leadership team of the organization. A key success factor is the alignment around it if your leaders are not all part of it, or feel left out in some way, it loses a lot of its power. If you determine what it is when you are starting out, then it’s a great way to share both your strategy and something about what matters to you to people whom you try to convince to come join you in your mission.

So, when you create your value proposition, remember, it should say who you are and what you do, and if possible, why or how you do it differently than everybody else.

  • It should be clearly written in simple language
  • It should be as short as possible (I like to limit them to three phrases of concept)
  • It should have a little personality so there is some feeling for what your organization will be like
  • It should have the involvement and support of all the leadership team
  • It should, or course, flow from your mission
  • It should tie to your values
  • It should be somewhat aspirational but it must also be realistic

Your value proposition should be something that motivates your team and could show up at the beginning of every business review. It is something that defines you and while it is not a consumer proposition or something you necessarily want to leak to your competition, it is certainly something that would feel accurate and you would feel proud of it were to be seen by your customers and other stakeholders.

I’ve always found that if you create a value proposition, it’s a whole lot easier to create value. That’s why you need one.


This is the sixth lesson in a series of nine by Jane Melvin, the founder and president of Strategic Innovations Group, Inc., a strategy and creativity consulting practice. These lessons grew from content she originally created for an online course in an MBA program.

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