Streetwise: Don’t Let Unclear Core Values Hold Your Company Back

April 10, 2021

From our friends at Eure Consulting:

Core values are the guiding principles of a company. When they aren’t clearly defined and articulated, a company starts to lose its way. An accidental culture starts to emerge that consists of bad habits, bad attitudes, and bad performance.

Every company needs to take the time to define, write down, and share their core values. Don’t just assume that everyone knows what they are. Early in a company’s life, you might be able to get away with letting each employee learn the core values by osmosis. They can pick up the values just from being in such close proximity to the CEO. However, as a company grows, the CEO is no longer able to easily pass those values on to the ever-growing workforce. The company’s values must be clearly articulated, lived, and intentionally shared in order for new employees to understand them.

Core values already exist at your company. It’s your job to uncover them, define them, share them, and live them.

One exercise that helps to uncover the core values that already exist at your company is the Mission to Marsexercise (first suggested by Jim Collins). Gather your leadership team together and ask everyone to think about the company’s five to seven highest-performing employees. The five to seven employees that they would choose to represent your company on a mission to Mars. Once there, they will share your company’s culture with the Martians that they meet.

These are the employees that you would clone if the technology existed. They are your go-to people for special projects or particularly important work. The employees that live and breathe your culture without even having to try. With a team full of employees like these your company could leave all of your competitors in the dust.

Once you have this list of star performers in mind, think about how they each show up in the workplace. What do they all have in common? How do they go about getting their work done? What areas are they placing their focus on? What parts of their work matter most to them? In short, what is it that makes them your best performers?

Of course, I should note that we’re not defining star performers just in terms of numbers. There are many “star” performers out there in the world that actually do more harm to the company than good. You know the type of person I’m talking about. A star salesperson who always blows their quota out of the water, but that demeans and belittles their co-workers along the way. Or a mid-level executive who all your customers love, but who is constantly spreading gossip and drama in an attempt to move up the ladder. These are not the people you want to clone.

Now that you know what makes these star performers great, start narrowing down which of those attributes are true of your company as a whole.

The goal is to outline a set of three to seven core values that define who your company is.

Make sure you set aside time to discuss and debate. Everyone needs to be one hundred percent on the same page with what each core value means. Don’t leave the definition of a common value like Integrity up to interpretation. Define exactly what it means for your company.

It will take a little trial and error to get it right. You might settle on a set of values you like and then decide two weeks later they aren’t accurate. That’s completely normal. It’s important to take the time you need to get these right.

And before you finalize anything, these values must pass three different tests to make sure they are accurate for you and your company.

The first, the Core Values Test, is series of simple questions to ask to understand if these values are truly core to your business. The questions are:

  • How is this value demonstrated today?
  • Would you hold this value even if it put you at a disadvantage?
  • Are you willing to hire and fire based on this value?
  • Will this value still be true in 10/20/30 years?

The second is to test yourself, and your leadership team against them. Do you and your leaders exhibit these values most of the time? If not, they are not truly core values for your company.

The third is to make sure that none of the values on your list are aspirational, permission-to-play, or accidental core values.

Aspirational core values are values that you wish your company had. They are generally words that make your company sound good, but that, if you’re being honest with yourself, you know isn’t core to how your company conducts business. You can certainly work towards living this value, but it is not a core value.

Permission-to-play core values are values that everyone in your industry has. They are the baseline for doing business. They do not differentiate you from your competition in any way. Your values should be unique to your company. Defining your specific way of doing business and setting you apart from others.

Accidental core values are values that have become embedded in your company by accident. These values may be true of your company, but they did not form intentionally. You need to reexamine each of these accidental values to understand if they are serving your company well or are in fact a detriment.

If your list can pass all three of these tests, you’ve found your core values.

Next you have to share them.

Just posting them on the wall is not enough. You have to live by these values. Hire and fire by these values. Tell stories about these values in action. Reward employees who exhibit these values. And most importantly, don’t compromise these values for anything.

Before you can do any of that, you have to make sure that everyone at your company understands what these values mean. Just like you took the time to clarify the definitions of each of the values with your leadership team, you now have to share those explicit definitions with your entire company.

For example, what exactly do you mean when you say that you are Customer Focused? What does it look and feel like for someone to focus on the customer? What are examples of specific behaviors that are customer-focused? Give people the understanding they need in order to follow these values day in and day out.

And repeat them often! Share them again and again and again. Living by these values means having them be part of every decision and action you make. Remind people of them every chance you get.

Every employee at your company should be expected, and required, to work by these core values.

Having well-defined and lived core values improves decision-making, behavior, and performance. If an employee has a clear set of values to guide their thinking, their decisions will all be in line with the company culture. If they see that other employees that are living out these values are constantly rewarded by leadership, they will know how to act and behave on the job.

Knowing your core values allows you to attract and retain more of the star performers you based your core values on. Those high-performing individuals can work anywhere they want right now. But they want to work for a company that has clearly stated how it wants to do business and that holds its employees accountable to meeting that standard. Define your core values now and win the war for talent.