Today’s top brands harness the power of setting, practicing, and embracing core values. That’s because core values are the governing principles by which entire organizations live and scale. They support company culture, and culture supports a healthy workplace that cares for employees and customers alike.
Costco is one such brand that understands the strength of living authentic core values. The company knows that if they get four things right, they’ll always make their stockholders happy. Their driving principles are to:
- Obey the law
- Take care of members
- Take care of employees
- Respect suppliers
Your company doesn’t have to be Costco, or anything nearly that large, to benefit from following its attitude toward customers and delighting them.
On the other hand, ignoring the power of core values has stalled the growth of businesses and even killed them altogether. Let’s take a closer look at how brands can determine their core values.
Start by asking where you want to go as a company. The next logical question follows: who’s going to get you there? In your business, there’s no playbook, so you want people around you who can just figure stuff out and help you evolve.
Sometimes, as soon as you start thinking about these questions, an answer instantly and clearly emerges: “This is what I value, so these are our values.” So you write them down and dictate their use to the organization. There’s a risk to that method, though, because dictated values are less likely to achieve universal belief and buy-in.
To support buy-in, a collaborative method is recommended. One way to begin identifying your values is to survey the people you’ve already hired in the context of where they want to go as a company. What are they excited about? What brings them joy in their work? If they were to win a million dollars tomorrow, what would motivate them to still go to work? What’s their purpose?
Also, survey yourself and top managers about whether you and they would rehire the same employees. Then consider what experience has taught you about the qualities you look for in hiring staff.
A common sticky note exercise is helpful to discover the rest of the values. Gather together the leadership team, and anyone else who would like to join, and write adjectives to describe qualities that make the top performers great and the other employees not so great. This brainstorming exercise will help determine other core values, and when organized on a whiteboard, patterns will emerge.
Key Questions to Trigger Core Value Discovery
Arriving at core values that everyone can get behind starts with looking into your motivations for starting the company. These questions can help with that process:
- What drives you? What drove you to start the company, and what makes you keep going? If someone said to you, “I’ll make you independently wealthy if you walk away from your business,” would you do it? If you would turn the offer down, why would you?
- What are the traits of the people you’ll need to help you realize your mission? What are the traits of your best employees?
- How is your company different? Why would customers choose to buy from you over anyone else? Express that difference in one sentence.
Qualities of Outstanding Core Values
Core values that support a healthy culture and unlimited growth have the following characteristics:
- They are positive: Core values are best framed positively as they will be promoted throughout the company.
- They are authentic: Authentic core values align with the behavior of the company. Plenty of companies promote great-sounding values that they never intended to live up to; they’re no more than window-dressing. When that happens, nobody’s fooled — not the customers and certainly not the employees. The company’s actions tell the real story.
- They are shared: Alignment to both goal and mission matters because everyone in a company is on the same ship, and they can’t feel aligned if they don’t know where the ship is going. Using another analogy, all troops need to be marching in the same direction. Without unifying core values or aligned incentive structures, any company is liable to compete internally for rewards and neglect the customer experience.
- They are memorable: Limit the number of core values to three to five because employees are more likely to adhere to ones they can actually keep in mind. You can share a few meaningful core values much more easily, and everyone who’s part of your company can feel good about getting behind them.
The foundation business owners set early on in their companies will have a big impact on their ability to scale. That’s why every business owner should get them right, and do so before the culture is already established for better or worse. It’s much harder and more painful to change a poor culture than to create a great one.
As you update your core values, make sure they’re clear to every employee regularly reinforce them in internal meetings. Then let those values guide all your decisions, including how people are hired, rewarded, and fired.
Fortunately, you don’t need to know all of your core values at the start of your business. So keep an eye open for your core values as you go, and consider them a work in progress.
Carolyn Lowe is the Founder and CEO of ROI Swift, a digital marketing agency that helps emerging consumer brands grow profitably. Carolyn is the author of “Business Growth Do’s and Absolute Don’ts: Applied Wisdom from My Work with Dell, Costco, Amazon, and Multiple Start-ups“.