Core values are important for a company’s culture. However, most companies miss the mark by using words that represent table stakes rather than a strategic choice.
As a business coach, I spend a lot of time with company leaders planning growth and developing strategy. A key part of this process is establishing the fundamentals for why an organization exists and how it chooses to do business. This step includes creating its mission, its vision, and, most important, its core values.
Unfortunately, many companies miss the mark when it comes to creating an effective set of core values. They either create a set of aspirational statements that describe what they wish they were–rather than what they truly are now–or they create values that define basic business best practices, rather than differentiating values that define the company’s unique identity.
Core values, like missions and visions, are there to help leaders in a company make tough decisions about how they execute their strategy. They provide guardrails and heuristics about what is the right–and what is the wrong–path to take. A good set of company core values should make it easier for everyone to make tough decisions.
When working on your core values, here are a few things to keep in mind that will improve their effectiveness as a decision-making tool.
1. Focus on who you are, not who you wish to be.
Too often I see core values that are aspirational rather than descriptive. A team declares that “punctuality” is a value, but starts every meeting 10 minutes late, or claims “transparency” is important but then cloaks leadership team meetings in secrecy.
Instead, focus on how your company is unique. If you like to have fun and be silly, own it. If you’re brutally competitive, then celebrate it. Values are not good or bad; they are simply who you are and how you see the world.
2. Avoid platitudes and best business practices.
I’m very wary about core values that use words like “honesty” and “integrity.” These are things every business needs to have to operate ethically. They are the foundation and should not be choices you’ve made. Even values like hard work or teamwork are difficult unless you can make a specific case.
The test for these is to ask if another company could say it is not going to be one of those things. A company would have a difficult time saying honesty wasn’t a value, which means is not a value that helps define who you really are. However, a company could say that teamwork isn’t a value because it focuses on being competitive instead. I’d give props to a business that was self-aware and bold enough to own that value.
3. Identify what you’re willing to give up.
A good way to give your core values some teeth is to figure out what value you’re willing to give up. I call these “antivalues.” These antivalues reflect what you’re willing to sacrifice to truly live your value.
Here’s the trick: You need to be able to give your antivalue to another company and have it still make sense. If you’re willing to give up privacy to be transparent, that works because another company could choose to give up transparency for privacy.
4. Find stories that demonstrate your values in action.
Values need to guide actions. Collect a handful of stories that breathe life into your values by showing how you’ve used them to make difficult decisions. You can also find examples of when you didn’t use them and how that led to bad outcomes. If you can’t find examples of how you have lived out your values, you might be missing something.
5. Incorporate them into your rituals and routines.
It doesn’t do any good to spend the time and energy discovering your values to just make a poster for your conference room wall. You need to use them as tools for making decisions and guiding your actions.
Work them into your regular course of business. I have clients who develop quarterly themes around values and create awards for people and teams who best demonstrate them. And while I don’t suggest using them in external marketing materials, your internal communications should refer to them often.
6. Hold people accountable for living the values.
The most impactful, but also the hardest, application of core values is to hold people accountable for living them. Working them into the professional development and review processes is critical. And, if need be, you should be willing to let someone go if they repeatedly act in conflict with the values you’ve agreed to.
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