Stop for a moment and think of a company that really embodies its core values. Perhaps you thought of Starbucks and its “culture of warmth” or Google and its belief in the democratization of the internet. Maybe you called to mind a local business that professes customer-centric values and has stellar customer service.
You can probably also think of a company that’s gotten it terribly wrong, professing one thing and doing something entirely different.
Every big corporation out there has a page on their website devoted to telling the world what they value and how that informs the culture of their organization. It’s the “in” thing to do.
It’s also important in its own right. Every organization has a culture, whether it was created intentionally or not. Developing and implementing your values puts you in control of that culture. Most importantly, it helps you identify who’s aligned with it and who’s not.
Here’s how to create your core values — not just some words that you put on a wall or a website — but the actual tenets that underpin your organization’s culture.
Step 1: Get inspired
First, read other company’s core values statements. The truth is, there are only so many values out there. Your values aren’t going to be unique to you. How you express them may be.
So do your research. Read other people’s, and see what inspires you. It may not be the value itself but how they’ve communicated it.
For instance, there are hundreds of ways to express the value of honesty. Who’s expressed it in a way that inspires you?
Southwest Airlines provides short actions to go along with each of their values. Their explanation of what it means to embrace honesty: “Speak up. Be transparent. Tell the truth.” That may touch on something that you want your company to embody, perhaps not only the need to tell the truth but also to speak up if you see something amiss.
Or you may be more inspired by the way dating app Tinder incorporates honesty into their values: “We Are Human & Honest: We recognize that we are all human... We deeply value our humanity – it inspires us to be real with one another and tolerant and accepting of our differences... This authenticity allows us to inspire one another and makes our work more meaningful, interesting and fun.”
Southwest’s values have a direct and professional tone, whereas Tinder’s are more focused on authentic interpersonal connections.
Step 2: Build a list
Write down all the values that inspire you and then put them in order of their importance to you personally. Maybe start with a list like this.
If you have a leadership team, you might want to collaborate with them on prioritization. Of course, you must make the ultimate decision about which values to choose because you’re building the company to align with your values. If you ever find yourself in conflict with your own company’s values, that’s a sign of dysfunction. So involve your team, but make sure you’re clear on your own values.
The biggest mistake people make is to pick too many. Let’s be clear: these are not your only values. They’re your core values. Aim for three or four and definitely no more than six. If you have too many values, you open yourself up to conflict among them. And it becomes harder to educate people about your values or hire in alignment with them.
I worked with a company that had 12 core values. They organized them into a “value of the month,” and they executed an internal values campaign well. Unfortunately, by the middle of the year, people couldn’t remember what their January value was. There were just too many.
One important note while you’re building this list: don’t go for gimmicks. This isn’t about branding, and it isn’t a marketing schtick. Don’t only choose values that will fit into a catchy acronym that cleverly aligns with your company name or some internal program. This is a time for being really honest with yourself about what values are most important to you.
Step 3: Drill down
This step is one that many people miss, and it’s the crux of the values development process. If you have a beautiful list of core values but no understanding of what those values actually look like in practice, the list is much less meaningful.
Take each of the core values you identified and build them into a list of behaviors. A value can mean different things to different people, so you and your company need examples.
Netflix does this well. For instance, one of their values is integrity — certainly a word that can mean different things to different people. They provide clear examples of what it looks like to embrace integrity at Netflix.
“You are known for candor, authenticity, transparency, and being non-political.
You only say things about fellow employees that you say to their face.
You admit mistakes freely and openly.
You treat people with respect regardless of their status or disagreement with you.
You always share relevant information, even when worrisome to do so.”
No questions there.
So drill down into what type of behaviors exemplify that value. Once you do that, you’ll be on the same page with anyone else who reads your values. Everyone will know exactly what they mean.
Step 4: Present your values
Why do you need to communicate your values? Why can’t you just know them and operate your company in accordance with them?
Because the people in your organization need to understand what behaviors will develop the desired culture and lead to success. The number one reason people don’t work out in an organization is misalignment of values. So you have to get good at communicating those values so you know there’s alignment. And you also have to begin assessing them in your recruitment process so everyone you bring onto your team is aligned around your core values.
At a minimum, write them up (including the behaviors) and put them on your website. Post them somewhere visible to all employees or provide a copy to every employee.
This is the time for your fun branding. Put your values into a form that’s easy for people to absorb. Netflix’s 2009 culture slidedeck (representing its values) went viral and became a model for many in Silicon Valley, including Sheryl Sandberg.
See more: Results Aren’t Achieved When Values Don’t Align
Step 5: Recognize the values
While a beautiful statement of your values on the wall or a mug or a calendar is great, it can’t be the end. You have to recognize the values in action. Create programs in your company that give people feedback when they are or are not following the values.
I worked with a CEO who’d been in business for over a decade and never defined their values. He just didn’t think values were important. Then he attended an event at one of his partner’s HQ which included a celebration of their core values. They were recognizing people and celebrating their actions in alignment with the company values. He came back from that meeting and told me he finally got it.
So he put together his values, and we coached him through the rollout in his company. Shortly thereafter, he fired someone for misalignment with their values. This person hadn’t been working out for a while, but he couldn’t put his finger on why. The minute he wrote out his values and the behaviors associated with them, it was clear that this employee wasn’t operating in alignment with the company’s values.
Recognition can look like lots of things. It could be peer recognition or a rewards system or call-outs in a scrum meeting or regular newsletter. I worked with a company that had greeting cards for each of their values. Whenever an employee saw anyone behaving in alignment with the company’s core values, they could jot a note to that person thanking them for it.
Whatever it is, managers and leaders have to be aware when people are (or aren’t) exhibiting the core values.
See more: Is Your Company Culture Undermining Your Success?
Step 6: Reinforce the values
Here’s where you show your employees, as well as your customers and your partners, that you’re willing to put money and time behind these values.
Are there education programs or team-building activities that can consistently reinforce what your values are and why they’re important to the company? A company that values innovation might have an annual internal competition to come up with a new product/service/process that will be implemented in the company.
If one of your core values is being customer-centric, you could lead monthly seminars to troubleshoot actual customer service interactions or get ideas from your team for ways to improve customer experience.
If you’re focused on giving back to your local community, you can host quarterly volunteer days where the whole team (including you) heads into a charitable organization to help package meals, plant gardens, or paint walls.
There are infinite possibilities. The key is to lead by example and incorporate the values into the fabric of your organization.
See more: It’s All About the People, the Team, and its Values
After you’ve developed and rolled out your values, you must focus on values-based hiring. As you grow your organization, everyone that comes into it needs to be aligned with your core values. You might extend that concept to clients or partners as well. At Trajectify, the clients that haven’t been as satisfying for us to work with are, in hindsight, the clients whose values didn’t align with ours.
It should go without saying, but I’ll say it here anyway. You have to be authentic about your values. Both internal team members and customers know when an organization says one thing and does something different. When that happens, any stated values lose all meaning.
You can’t say you value innovation and risk-taking and then reject all requests to try something new. And of course, we all remember the 2017 viral video of United Airlines’ employees forcibly removing a bleeding traveler from its plane to make room for an airline employee. One of their values at the time? “We fly friendly. Warm and welcoming is who we are.” You need to do what you say and say what you do. (That’s the core value of integrity.)
We’ve coached leaders through every stage of this process. Contact us to help your organization get in alignment.