When I say “company values”, what comes to mind? For most of us it’s those companies with a clear social mission – and how they outwardly demonstrate those values (and get stories written about them). Think Tom’s donating shoes to underprivileged communities worldwide. Think Honest Company that avoids (or tries to avoid) certain chemicals in its formulations. And those are great examples.
But your company doesn’t have to have such an explicitly social mission to be clear about its values and to live up to them. It doesn’t have to be as grandiose as changing the world; but simply a set of fundamental principles your company will live by in the policies it makes and the way it incorporates those values into interactions with employees, customers, the public, etc. Having a clear set of principles your company will attract more talent and more customers that want to be aligned with those same principles. I believe there is true value in knowing your true values.
With that in mind, I wanted to share some ideas about how to uncover (or rediscover) your organization's core values and put them into practice.
Rediscover The Bedrock Values
If you’re the founder – the company’s values will probably reflect your values to a large degree. You can mold the company into one that reflects your value set. At a minimum you will most likely know what those values are.
If you are leading a company (vs. being its founder) you can still uncover a set of common values that the organization holds dear. If possible, go back in the company’s history and learn what you can about the founder(s) reasons for starting the business and how they ran it. See if you can determine what their values were. What was important at the business’s creation? Often this can be a guide to those core values.
Also look at information such as the company’s mission statement and its vision for the future. These defining qualities should be embedded in these.
Stories can be helpful also. Are there fundamental stories that seem to get told over and over again? Think about the many stories you’ve heard about Nordstrom employees that brought a customer's left-behind airline ticket all the way to the airport. These stories typically demonstrate an ethos of putting an employee or customer’s welfare above pure profit. There seems to be bigger, more invisible values at play.
Action: Set a deadline and then (1) research and collect the foundational information described above for your company and (2) conduct an employee session to consider what your fundamental principles are. Create a list of them.
Infuse The Company
Whether you are the company's founder or merely its current leader, you still have to instill these values throughout the organization. Having the list is one thing. Making sure those values are understood (and lived up to) throughout the organization is another. It begins with leadership. But make no mistake…it begins with leadership. Here are some common areas to make sure the company’s values are alive.
- Hiring. Throughout the hiring process be clear what your company's values are - and that you are seeking people who will align well with them. Develop interview questions to ask and behavioral characteristics to look for within the process.
- Training. Your employees need to fully understand (and ask questions about) the core values of the organization. Include discussions of this list of values in training and education. Make sure all training materials reflect the business's core values. And ensure that instructors understand and will reflect the company's values in their teaching.
- Customer interactions. Your policies as they relate to customers must reflect your values. And all employees who interact with customers need to fully understand how your core values form the basis for those interactions.
- Employee policies. Yes, core values extend to employees. Make sure that employees not only understand them, support them, and live up to them; but also that they are served by them. Vacation, healthcare, family, compensation, recognition - all these areas need to be congruent with your company's core values.
- Product decisions. Core values certainly relate to the products you sell and they way they function. You can't produce and/or sell products that break the basic rules you have set for your organization.
- Partners (investors, vendors, contractors, etc.). One area that is often overlooked when it comes to operating your organization with a foundation of core values is the set of other partners your company may have. You should demand that your partners understand and adhere to those core beliefs your company maintains. Your partners are an extension of your company. If they are not living up to the ideals you have set then in effect your company is not either. At a minimum, friction will begin to occur between your company and those partners.
Action: Look at each of the areas listed above. List the ways that the organization’s values could impact each one. Then outline how those values are being implemented within each currently. Are you living up to your commitments? In those areas you might be falling short, create a plan for implementing change.
Support Staff Decisions
Your employees should understand that they are empowered to make the right decisions – those that are aligned with those core values. Let them know that you as the organization’s leadership will support their decisions.
So many decisions will arise in the course of an average day - and the bigger and more decentralized your organization is, the more room there is for employees to make decisions on their own. As I touched on above, make sure employees are well-trained in what the company's core values are. Make sure they understand your expectations. Also, make sure you give them the freedom to make decisions. Living within a set of core values does not mean that you have to develop a stifling environment. Allow your employees enough discretion to make choices, give them the tools and knowledge to make the right ones, and follow-up as needed to ensure they are making those calls in alignment with the company's values. Open communication, education, and trust are key.
Action: Openly communicate with employees. Let them know that the “ground rules” are anchored in the company’s core values. Be very clear that you will support them – even in the face of challenging situations (a less-profitable transaction, a lost or upset customer, etc.) when they make decisions in line with the company’s values. The inverse will also be true. Breaking those values will be dealt with as needed. Set their expectations.
Another helpful action you can take is to role-play different scenarios. Not ALL situations will have a clear-cut rule. Judgment calls will need to be made – sometimes on-the-fly. Equip them to make those decisions. But always with the understanding that you will support them if made in the right spirit.
I hope you choose to run your organization by explicitly defining and instilling a set of fundamental principles in the company. I do believe there exists real value by doing so. I hope this post gave you some great fundamentals and some ideas that you can implement to make it happen.
A gazillion different situations will arise. But with the company’s core values well-understood and respected. And with support from the organization’s leadership, you will be building a culture that makes the right decisions….
Core values are a fundamental building block of your company. It demonstrates the company’s beliefs, how you view the world, how you will act (even in the face of adversity), and even when (as it sometimes might) it means lost sales or lower productivity. Think of it as the values your organization holds dear. It’s the bedrock of your way of doing things. Build your company n the strong foundation it deserves!
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I hope you found this post valuable. If you want to run your business on a foundation of core values and feel like you might need help getting there, feel free to contact me. I’d be happy to chat with you and explore whether I can help. No pressure. Just an informal discussion to explore the idea a little. You can reach me at (713) 907-8429 or BCohen@IDiscoverConsulting.com.
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