Years ago, when I heard about companies using core values as a tool to communicate behaviour important to them, I thought it was a load of fluff and had no real business value.

Wow, was I wrong!

The issue was that I was exposed to companies with mediocre, two-paragraph mission statements and beautifully articulated core values that were only words on paper. They didn’t seem to be alive in the culture at all.

Many years later, I realized that, although those companies had great intentions, they didn’t know how to really build a culture and core values with teeth. The ones that do, know how to deliver what their customers want, have a strong culture, and use their core values as guard rails to keep the company sustainable.

If you have any doubt about the importance of core values, just think of a situation you’ve been in where people had dramatically different beliefs about how people should be treated, or how the work should get done. In those situations, a huge portion of your energy goes to try to find a way to work together – or around each other – that distracts you from doing the quality work you wanted to do, in the first place.

The right core values create common guidelines that reduce friction in the system and make it easier for us to deliver what we are accountable for. When you boil it down, their ultimate role is to define the behaviours required to be an effective employee; and guidelines for managers to hire people, train, promote, reprimand and, unfortunately, fire those who don’t fit.

In simple terms, they allow you to break someone’s behaviour into distinct components:

  • What – Their ability to meet expectations and goals in their role
  • How – Their ability to be in alignment with each other.

“Core Values becomes one of the most important decision-making tools we have. When it comes to people, there are lots of different ways to get results, but we want people who will do it a similar way and with a similar belief system. And when people don’t, it is a nightmare – hard on them and hard on the team because they have a different belief in how the job should be done, or how we should treat people.”

Represent Your Unique View

Most companies’ core values aren’t really representative of their unique view of operating in the world because their process to define them was flawed. They come up with a list of the nice attributes of a human being, but they are not requirements to be here. And if you don’t play, you can’t stay.

One company I worked with had a core value of “Accountability”. After working with them for a couple of quarters, they consistently only achieved half their goals and were generally OK with that. We then had an interesting conversation about how “Accountability” was an aspirational value and not a core value, otherwise people would be up in arms.

“Compassionate and understanding” was closer.

Another company had a core value called “Team Player” which meant, in their busy season, no one could leave until all the work was done. One person on the admin team – maybe the smartest in the whole company – would get all her work done by 2pm, and to her credit, would stay another two hours to help the rest of the team. But she’d go home at 4pm, leaving the everyone else there until 8pm. When asked about it in a feedback session, she said it wasn’t her fault that the others were slow, so when it became clear that her actions weren’t aligned with that non-negotiable core value, she could no longer stay.

This was also an acid test for the CEO about the core value “We’re all in it together”.

How Do You Know if Your Core Values are Right?

If your core values are truly accurate, you should be able to say ‘yes’ to most of these points:

  1. You empower other people to make hiring/firing decisions using core values as the only measure of their character. This works because the top people fit the core values very well and the high-performing jerks would have violated at least two.
  2. You have a list of four or five not 15. Fifteen is a LIST of values – only four or five are CORE non-negotiable values.
  3. You are willing (and have taken a financial hit) to protect your core values. If anyone has violated them, you willingly pay to resolve it.
  4. They are a reality now, not aspirational statements of who you would love to be one day. This means the majority of your leaders live them consistently.
  5. If you do 360 feedback and use core values as one of your measures (which we recommend) your A-Players, those who are high-performing and fit the culture well, score at least 85% to 90% on each one.

On a side note: For one of our companies, we knew the core values weren’t right when we saw the results of the CEOs 360. This founding CEO scored between 70% and 90% on the core values when it’s normally 90% plus for someone like that when the core values are right.

  1. The language of the values is used throughout your company on a regular basis.
  2. If you were to make a list of the most toxic but high-performing people you’ve worked with – employees, customers, suppliers (in Your Oxygen Mask First call them Toxic A- Players) – they would violate at least a couple of your core values.

At the root, core values define how you and your team are freakishly unique – your belief systems that capture the nuances and amazing quirks of how you like to conduct yourselves.

The Challenge

  • Are your core values truly required behaviours for your company?
  • If you have them right …congratulations! How do you bring them to life more and what decisions might you need to make around those that aren’t in alignment?
  • If you were to self-rate, on a scale of zero to 10, how much do you live these values?

If your values aren’t right, let us know and we can help you get to your core.

For more discussion about core values, listen to this episode of The Growth Whisperers podcast.