When I say “core values”, what comes to mind? Words like integrity, diversity, inspiration, community, creativity, sustainability... and blah, blah, blah, boring. Right? This is the problem with most companies’ core values: too often, they’re bland, toothless, or just plain dishonest. And even if your employees can rattle off a bulleted list of semi-inspirational words (and I’m guessing many can’t), those empty words do nothing to inspire. Even worse, over time, they can become destructive, creating cynical and dispirited employees and incredible management.
But why should we care? What’s so important about having strong core values? Strong core values support the company vision, shape the culture, and reflect what the company holds dear. They provide both internal and external advantages to the company that include better decision making processes, client education, and recruiting and retention assistance. They’re not just “good vibes” that provide an emotional lift. Rather, they’re the very things that give our companies their identities. Developing a strong set of core values is key to creating vibrant cultures within our organizations. That’s why creating a list of words like “integrity” and “creativity” just doesn’t work.
Discover Your Core Values
In his article, Aligning Action and Values, Jim Collins, author of Good to Great et al., claims that organizational values should be “discovered” rather than “set”. Instead of just picking words out of thin air and then trying to fit them into your organization as core values, Collins advocates an exercise he calls the “Mars Group Exercise”. The following list reveals the steps to this approach:
- Select 5-7 people who have a gut-level understanding of your core values, are distinguished as the highest performers, and are well respected by their peers and management team. This is your Mars group. Why a gut-level understanding? Because core values are predisposed. You cannot “install” them into people.
- Ask the Mars group to list what they think the core values of the organization are. Then ask them the subsequent questions relating to each of the core values they have chosen:
- Are the core values that you hold fundamental regardless of whether or not they are rewarded?
- If you woke up tomorrow morning with enough money to retire for the rest of your life, would you continue to hold on to these core values?
- Can you envision these values being as valid 100 years from now as they are today?
- Would you want the organization to continue to hold these values, even if at some point, they became a competitive disadvantage?
- If you were to start a new organization tomorrow in a different line of work, would you build the core values into the new organization regardless of its activities?
The last three questions are crucial because they help to make a distinction between core values and strategies. Core values are fixed regardless of the time and factors affecting the organization, while strategies and practices should be changing all the time.
Struggling? That’s okay. Below are some core values common across all industries. Note that meanings are attached to each. Again, no empty words!
- Accountability – acknowledging and assuming responsibility for actions, products, decisions, and policies, both individually and as a company.
- Balance – taking a proactive stand to create and maintain a healthy work-life balance for workers.
- Commitment – committing to great product, service, and other initiatives that impact lives within and outside the organization.
- Community –contributing to society and demonstrating corporate social responsibility.
- Diversity – respecting the diversity of the team and establishing an employee equity program.
- Empowerment – empowering employees to take initiative and make best decisions.
- Innovation – pursuing new creative ideas that have the potential to change your company, your industry, and your community.
- Integrity – acting with honor and never compromising truth.
- Ownership – taking care of the company and customers as if they were one’s own.
- Safety – ensuring the health and safety of employees and going beyond the legal requirements to provide an accident-free workplace.
Keeping Core Values Alive
Discovery is only half the battle. A recent EOSⓇ blog posting claims that the only thing worse than non-existant core values are dead core values. I couldn’t agree more. To keep core values alive, we must continuously exercise them. How? Start with the interview process. Personally interview each candidate and ask them to reveal their personal core values during the interview. Again, think gut-level understanding. You can’t force values on people, so select the candidates that share your values right from the start. When you check references, ask them to describe the candidate’s values, not just his or her abilities. Next, think about reward and recognition. When employees exhibit a core value, acknowledge and appreciate that behavior. Constantly acknowledging your core values will help keep them alive. Finally, imbed your values into performance reviews. Use a simple scale: “+” = always exhibits that behavior, “+/-” = usually exhibits that behavior, and “-” = rarely exhibits that behavior. Continuously reviewing core values with employees and letting them know how they’re meeting them is critical to keeping your values alive.
If your core values are already dead, there’s still some hope. Be open and honest with your team about their death, what happened, why it happened, what you learned, and why you want to try again. Then follow the steps of “discovery” laid out above.
With proper care and regular exercise, your core values will live a long and healthy life, and breathe meaning into your organization. Take the steps necessary to create and sustain them. It’s a lengthy and continuous process, but it’s so worth it.