Best Practices, Framework, Operations, V9I4

Core Values That Matter

(Photo courtesy of Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash)

Core values? Yes, we are back on the subject again! 

There are few things more central to building a healthy company culture than its core values—yet, all too often, establishing them is peripheral to company leaders’ attention. 

Our family business was nearly 38 years old when we first began the process of identifying and documenting our core values. It’s not that they didn’t exist—clear values were present at the start of the business in 1972, and they informed and guided decisions over those many years. 

My father’s values were embedded in his mind, and anyone who was around for any length of time and tuned in to conversations could begin to identify them. However, until they were clearly verbalized and documented, it was far more difficult to actually leverage their power for building a strong culture. 

The first principle undergirding core values is that every company has them. They do exist in the mind of the owner or leadership team, but that doesn’t automatically mean they are being used effectively. 

It’s also possible for leaders themselves to have general ideas of core values but lack clarity on specifics. Therefore, engaging in the discovery process will prove to be well worth a company leader’s time and energy. 

When I started the discovery process for my family business (after taking it over from my father), we used a process similar to the one I still use today in my work with leadership teams. This method involves three key steps, outlined below. 

It’s important to realize that clearly stating core values is only the first step. Core values will require some time to gain a high level of ownership on a leadership team, and additional time is needed before they become embedded in the culture of a company. 

Establishing and embedding core values will not be merely a simple one-day exercise.

Step one for us was to identify three key people already in the company who fit what we saw as the very DNA of the business. After agreeing that these people represented what we valued and wanted to provide in business, we went to work creating a list of the traits, characteristics, and behaviors that made them such a great fit.  This list was quite long.

Step two, therefore, was to narrow down the list of characteristics. The goal is to have between three and seven core values. Some components of our original list were simply eliminated. How did we decide which ones should go? Several criteria were helpful. 

There are basic values that should be considered “permission to play” or to even be a part of the business. 

For example, such qualities as honesty, integrity, and dependability are normally expected as essential requirements for employees. These assumed characteristics shouldn’t take up space in the core values list. A person who doesn’t possess those will never be a productive part of your business—and let’s be honest, no one else wants to hire that person, either. 

Other characteristics were aspirational. The leadership team themselves didn’t give evidence of these as “core” to who they were. These characteristics may well be good and highly desirable, and the team may aspire to growth in those specific values, but they don’t belong on the core values list of the company as part of the “core” of who they are and how they do business unless the team actually models them consistently. 

Other values on the list were combined—either they were similar, or they could be captured in a brief phrase joining several concepts into one stated value.

Step three was the wordsmithing part of the process. Finding language that is simple, clear, and memorable can be challenging. 

The core value itself should be concise, usually no more than three words. Yet the occasional longer phrase, if highly memorable and impactful, can work. 

Googling synonyms is a helpful tool for finding the exact word you need. With the recent popularization of AI, some companies are using ChatGPT or other tools to assist them in generating ideas for precise wording. 

Whatever process you use, be sure that the language represents the owner and leadership team in tone, culture, and style. These need to be “values” that obviously express the genuine “core” of the team. 

Once the core values have been identified, the next step is to prepare a presentation. Craft a “core values speech” that will be used in their initial rollout and ongoing implementation. In this speech, each core value should have at least three descriptive components. 

First, there should be some explanation of what you mean by the statement. Second, there should be an example or short story illustrating how the core value plays out in the real-life decision making in the company. 

Third, it is helpful to have an antithetical form illustrating what it looks like to “break” the core value—an example, story, or illustration of a situation where the core value was absent. 

Usually, the owner or CEO of the company should draft this speech, since it must flow from the very core of who he/she is. 

Speech writers and ChatGPT can assist; however, they cannot replace the leader’s responsibility to express this from his very soul.  The conviction of the importance of these core values typically guided the formation of the company.  He/she now must verbalize them clearly in order to draw others into the vision.  

It’s at this point that the real hard work begins. The speech needs to be given to the entire company, but even that’s just the start. It needs to be a part of every company meeting in multiple ways. The same speech needs to be delivered over and over!  

Secondly, awards must be given to people who in very specific ways model a specific core value. These awards are often most effective when the core value being practiced is identified by a peer. He/she is given the opportunity to explain publicly what core value was modeled, tell the story around it, and recognize his/her colleague in front of the other employees. 

In addition, all supervisors should be actively evaluating and rating their direct reports at least quarterly on their performance based on the core values. 

While the initial work can be done in a few weeks, it can take years to embed these values into the very fiber of an organization. However, the intentional work required is well worth the effort. 

One caution for business leaders: If you don’t intend to commit to the long path of embedding core values into your company culture, it’s best to not waste your time identifying them. Values identified but then ignored tend to erode a company culture more than build it. 

Various tools can be helpful in getting core values into the DNA of the company. We used small trifolds, the size of a business card, that employees could carry in their pockets. 

In addition, we printed desktop flip calendars that had the core values printed along with a simple example or practice that modeled a core value for each day of the month. Every meeting that we called, including the quick daily stand-up meeting on the factory floor, started with one core value and associated behavior. 

It takes disciplined, consistent work built around existing company routines to get this work done.

Again, don’t expect embedding core values to be a quick and easy process. 

Take the Chick-fil-A company’s experience. Today, when you walk into a Chick-fil-A restaurant and make a request, you anticipate the response, “My pleasure!” I recently learned that the president of Chick-fil-A, Truett Cathy, announced this plan a full 10 years before it became a firmly embedded part of the culture. 

Take the long view and commit to the hard work. It does take time. But as with all worthwhile things, the investment of time and focused discipline will eventually pay huge dividends.

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