The Issue with Company Core Values

Whenever I have a discussion with a new CEO client, and the topic of company core values comes up, I absolutely cringe.

People are usually excited about their vision, mission, and core values. Often, they have spent hours and days getting them clear. They are so proud of them – like the kid coming home from kindergarten with their first piece of artwork.

Unfortunately, most of the time, the work people do on their company core values is the quality of that kindergarten art…when they should be worthy enough to hang in a gallery.

“True leaders don’t look at just the outward appearances in the selection of team members, they look at one’s core values and heart.” – Farshad Asl, Author, No Excuses Mindset

The root of the problem is that company core values are usually misunderstood. Whether people do the work themselves or get an expert to help them – they often end up with something that is nice, but far from what is core to the business.

These values end up becoming business or marketing strategies. And often something even less relevant – that list of “favourite words” brainstormed by 20 people in a boardroom that get mashed into a concept that doesn’t represent the core values of your business at all.

I was one of these people when I started 20 years ago. Since then, thankfully, I’ve had some great insights and learning that have helped me better understand company core values.

Core values are the core, non-negotiable belief and operating systems that people must have to be in your company or to partner with you, externally. Absolute non-negotiables, and the list by which you decide whether to hire or fire someone, assuming they are good at their work.

It’s not a ‘what I want to be when I grow up’ list – it’s an absolute must have. It represents the core of your organization that people who work with you should appreciate and share.

The most powerful and effective way to get your core values is to have the founder and a few key people in the room.

Company Core Values Exercise

  • On the left-hand side of a page, make a list of five people who are absolutely amazing at their work and so delightful to work with, you’d like to replicate them. Jim Collins has an exercise called Mission to Mars where you think of the five people you’d send to Mars to start a new division of your business. You’d never be able to talk to them, but you trust that they would do it right.
  • On the right-hand side of the same page, write a list of names (or initials) of the five people who are excellent at their work but are a nightmare to work with because they just don’t fit in the culture. They are likely no longer with the company – or should be! I call these Toxic A Players.
  • Next, look at the attributes of both the spectacular people and the nightmares.
  • What did the great ones have, and what are the others missing?

This will help you to triangulate your core values and get down to the essence of what is required.

This could take 30 minutes or a few hours. Do it over a couple of sessions, sit on it, run it by a few other people. Once you have something that is close – three to seven words that describe your core values – do the acid test.

Run these core values through the list of five and five, and make sure all the people on the left side of the page have them all – at least a nine out of 10 level.

The people on the right of the page would seriously be missing at least one of the core values.

You’ll find that some of the Toxic A’s have some of them (you did hire them in the first place) but they’ll have serious gaps on one or two. If not, go back to the drawing board until you get it right because those people should be filtered out if you get it right.

To summarize, core values are the required behaviours or quirks of your unique view of the world – and it is the list by which you’ll hire – or fire – high performers and make and implement important decisions.

Core values are not just fluff that make you sound like everybody else, so make sure you get it right.

The Challenge

  • If you are going to create core values, please do them right (so someone like me doesn’t have to come in and fix them for you!)
  • If you already have core values, even if you’ve printed them out and put them on the wall, go and re-visit them. Are they clear and binary enough to represent what your company is about?
  • Finally, if you have any of those Toxic As (high performers that don’t fit in your company) make sure you have an action plan to address that in a reasonable amount of time, otherwise people around you will translate the core values based on your actions and behaviours, not necessarily the words on the page.