The core values of an organization are the fundamental principles that guide it’s business decisions and actions. They are a reflection of what an organization believes in and should guide the decisions and actions of the people within the business. Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, the authors behind “Built to Last,” define core values as “the fundamental building blocks of an organization and seldom change, if ever.” 1
Collins and Porras argue that core values cannot be defined, but should be discovered. Defined core values have a tendency to be less authentic. Take Enron as the famous example of inauthentic core values listing communication, respect and integrity as words the organization lived by, none of which were adhered to when they were involved in the most significant financial scandal that led to their inevitable bankruptcy. While it’s nice to prescribe values that sound good - the customer comes first, be ethical, treat others as you would want to be treated - the purpose of core values is to define the culture and behaviour that your organization stands for and supports.
So how do you discover your core values? Zappos is an example commonly used when citing organizations that began without any core values but slowly determined their core values through the years. They credit the development of core values as the reason their organization has expanded while maintaining their culture.
Here are three tips that have helped us and countless other organizations to discover their core values.
Take your time
Core values are what will define your organization, so take your time in discovering and identifying them. It’s easier to narrow down your core values when you start with the company at its inception as you’re working with a smaller group. Difficulties will increase in larger organizations as introducing or redefining core values now has to be communicated and accepted by larger groups of team members who may or may not share the same values. Whatever happens, it’s a necessary process required to maintain authenticity in your core values.
Of course, it’s easy to churn out value statements that are on-trend, but to define a set of values that resonate with your organization and aren’t memorized for the sake of memorizing, but really believed in, is a difficult task. While small teams may take a month to several months, larger organizations may need a year to come up with their core values.
Keep it small or survey the whole team?
There are two parties of thought here - one that asserts that the organizational values should be made by the core management team and another that urges organizations to survey their entire company to find out the values they’re already living by. At Kudos, we’re avid supporters of transparency and making sure teams are involved in all business decisions as opposed to imposing a set of values on the organization. While the imposition of a set of values will initially help weed out those who aren't cultural fits with the organization, in the long-term these values could quickly transform into aspirational values as opposed to core values that guide all the actions of an organization.
Values have to be discovered, not defined
Meaningless, empty values potentially result in teams that don’t trust their organization. If your actions don’t reflect the values you’re supposed to stand for, how can you expect your team to believe you when it comes to your promises to your organization and your clients/customers?
A great exercise to go through is to think of two to three role models and list their top attributes that you would like to see in your organization. Go through your day-to-day decision-making and pinpoint the motivations behind those decisions. Do they align with what’s currently listed as your organization's values? If the answer is yes, then you’re on the right path. If the answer is no, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate and update your core values to better define what your organization stands for.
Most often, values that are the most meaningful are those you are already living. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel or introducing new values that are on-trend or politically relevant, think of the values you prioritize when hiring new team members. Do you prioritize a willingness to learn? How about the ability to be agile in their role? If you’re currently happy with your team, think of the values they all live by that you appreciate and recognize and articulate them in a way that would be easy to understand for new hires.
Keep it simple
The magic number of core values is between three and five. Any more than five and you stand to confuse your employees. By keeping the number of values small, it increases the chance that your employees will remember and live your values, which in turn will increase their confidence the decisions and actions that they take.
Core values are the backbone of any organization, large or small. They are the overarching umbrella that guides your employees on their decisions and actions. Keep these tips in mind when you’re formulating your core values, and you’re sure to succeed.
Kudos makes it easy to keep your organization’s core values at the top of your employee's minds. Book a call with us and find out how we can encourage your team to live their core values.