Choosing Core Values

“If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?” Hamilton rings true in this quote around values. Values are an interesting part of business planning, culture, and communication strategy today. Looking at the core values across multiple suppliers, clients, competitors, and peers – a few key patterns emerged, “red flags” indicating that there was a problem in organizations, large and small, around this seemingly simple exercise. 

The first go round of Core Values at my first business, Doberman Technologies, was an unmitigated disaster by any measure. I always enjoy sharing my failures – Usually they’re amusing to read about, and if you’ll bear with me to the end, form the basis of most of my learnings and “Ah-ha’s!” that supplement my toolkit for consulting and coaching engagements. 

The big red flags we found were:

  • Don’t get “aspirational” with your values. If something isn’t current practice, doesn’t inform decision making, and isn’t currently adhered to – it’s not a core value. You can see if you can move towards adopting it, but it doesn’t belong in the “list”
  • Avoid “permission to play” values – We had a lot of values like “Integrity” and “Honesty” and “Trust” – You wouldn’t hire, do business with, or sell to individuals / organizations that didn’t have these traits; these are “permission to play” type items. They’re not strategic or fundamental to your organization – they “go without saying”. Take them off the list.
  • Don’t decide the values in a vacuum. The first set of values I made myself. The second set was just a subsection of the company. The third set was decided on by the entire company in an all-staff meeting. That last set exists today, and actually reflected our fundamental beliefs and practices. 

An interesting “Ah-ha” from the red flags is that all of them occurred from taking other’s actions, thoughts, recommendations, rules, guidelines, and whatnot as “absolute truths.” We spent time reading books, reviewing articles, listening to podcasts, attending webinars and conference centers with the assumption that “these people have done this many times, they have the experience and knowledge, the way they do it must be the ‘right way’ to build core values.” Taking others advice, following the “herd” blindly with a naïve amount of faith and trust that of course the herd knows where it’s going, there is no way we’re about to go off a cliff together had led us astray in many ways.

A quick checklist to prepare yourself for a successful value-building session:

  • A whiteboard and associated supplies
  • A room where all participants can be comfortable being inside for 60-90 minutes
  • A time when everyone in the organization (if possible), or a proper subsection of each “division” of the organization can be present. 
  • No distractions (No phones, PCs, tablets, or other items are required)
  • A good list in your pocket of “permission to play” values

The method we’ve used, that had finally worked for Doberman, and has worked for Richardson & Richardson, along with the client’s we’ve served and other organizations before us, utilizes a Funnel methodology with 7 steps. I’ve listed those below. 

  1. We start with a long list – Listing out the words, feelings, statements, and facts about the company that are “true to the core.” These fundamental “values” are currently used in the business, cause the room to “nod their head”, and lead into each other, they start forming a theme. 
  2. Let the room throw things out freely – this is brainstorming, there isn’t a “bad” idea or value right now. You will get most, if not all, of the permission to play values on the board quickly. Write them down along with the rest. 
  3. Once you’ve been able to collect a long list (think a full page of these brainstormed ideas), we will want to consolidate and organize the values. Tackle the permission to play head on – Consolidate them into a list and ask the awkward questions: Are these really “values” for our organization, or do they go without saying? Would any organization ever say it stood against these values? Do they really steer our decision making processes, or are they done without thinking about it? 
  4. Once you’ve dismissed the permission to play values, you will want to deal with aspirational values next. One at a time, go to the values that stand out as “not currently true” for the organization and ask if we’re living that value currently. Do we have the processes, procedures, and policies that enforce and lead to these values? Do our actions and words reflect them? 
  5. With the remaining values, dig in. Ask the room what the values mean to them. Ask for stories, examples, and lessons learned from the values. Wordsmith, or get the room to help you wordsmith, the value into an easy to remember phrase (e.g. Campground Rules, Always forward, Dig Deep). 
  6. Keep your value list to above 3, and below 7 values. For each value, write down a rough draft of some “specifics” around the value – (e.g. No Sacred Cows – We never assume we know something, be curious and seek the truth and facts about situations before taking actions). Consolidate values that are “pretty similar” into one overarching value that covers both specifics. 
  7. Once you have your list drafted, document it (with editing for clarity and tone as needed), send it to the participants in the exercise, and sleep on it for a week. Come back around to the values in the next all staff meeting and make sure they resonate with the room. If the room agrees, its time to adopt the values. 

The final thought I have on this is don’t take my word as gospel either. Do some searching on value creation, read the books and articles, go to the webinars and sessions, listen to the podcasts. Collect the methods, thoughts, and learnings of others on the topic. But take all of them, mine included, with the grain of salt. If someone is telling you to do it “this way” that resonates as a sacred cow to me. Make sure we’re not assuming that their truth is your truth as well. Every organization is different, and your permission to play values will be different than another organization. Your core values will sound, feel, and be your organization at the end of this exercise, and your organization will be healthier for it. 

If you’re struggling with defining core values, culture, or an organizational strategy, Richardson & Richardson can help. Check out our case studies for stories of organizations that we’ve assisted with similar issues and download our white papers for deep dives on tools you can use in your organization. If you’re wondering where to start, book a complimentary session with one of the Richardsons today to come up with a plan on how to move forward. 

Always forward,

Ian Richardson

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