Making Core Values Stick

I was recently asked: how do you make core values stick? The friend who asked had worked for companies that erroneously claimed they had core values. In those places, the core values are nice words on the wall but don’t really drive culture. In those places, there are daily examples of people working against or outright violating the core values without consequences. In those places, someone’s perceived skillset is more important than cultural fit and those not aligned to the values are allowed to create disruptions at any time. I have seen leaders justify allowing bad behavior because the person is a “great” performer. What those leaders don’t consider, though, are the costs associated with those disruptions.

Let’s consider an example.

Several years ago, I was working with the CEO of a large software company where the sales leader for their largest region was disliked by almost everyone. He was seen as a disruption and a bully, and people in tangential areas hated working with him. I asked the CEO why he tolerated these bad behaviors, which, by the way, were completely contradictory to their core values.  The response was that he generates so much sales, the company couldn’t afford to lose him. Then I asked the question that turned things around: “So, how profitable are his sales?” His response was a blank stare.

After doing some research, we discovered that his success was related to giving the maximum discount in every sale and offering hours of free consulting to get his sales to completion. Before we dug in, this CEO had considered firing the head of his consulting group because they were losing money. As it turned out, all of this person’s losses were directly related to the free consulting given by the regional sales leader. Once completed, the analysis of the sales leader’s group showed that their sales aren’t profitable at all. Now the decision was an easy one. They terminated the sales leader.

Guess what? All the other things they feared would happen by firing this person never materialized.  They were afraid they would lose customers because he would take them. He didn’t. As a matter of fact, the company discovered many of their customers didn’t like him either. They were also afraid of losing some key salespeople in his area, but they only lost two who ignored the core values just like him, so there was no real loss. Those who stayed were glad to see him gone. They didn’t like how he acted or talked about the company leadership behind closed doors.

After the culture shifted, the company saw a healthy jump in profits and their sales growth began to accelerate. This is a textbook example of what happens when you tolerate people who aren’t aligned to the core values.

So, let’s get back to the original question:

“How do you make core values stick?”

First, ensure you have the right core values. If you have a list of core values, ask yourself if you would fire someone for behaving contrary to the values. If the answer is “no,” you only have nice words posted on the wall, not core values.

Remember, the core values identify who should be in the organization and who should not. Companies that have a great culture are obsessed with having the right people in and the wrong people out. Since that alignment is the basis for good working relationships, building an organization based on people who are aligned at a base level generates the greatest opportunity for people to work well together. If someone does not have the core values of the company, it doesn’t make them a bad person, it only makes them a bad fit.

What if you don’t have the right core values? It’s time to reset them and get them right. If you haven’t identified your company’s values, it should be the first thing you work on starting now.

This brings us to the next question I get asked: “How do you identify your company’s core values?”  Notice I said “identify.” Your company’s core values are already living and breathing in your company. These values are not created, but rather discovered. The wrong way to do this is to bring a group of people together in a room and have a discussion on what people feel are the right values.

Often, when I work with companies that just have nice words on the wall, I discover that this is how they came up with their list. Unfortunately, there are a lot of consultants out there selling a process like this. Part of the problem is, like most things, we want quick fixes and silver bullets. This might be a fast process, but in the end, it won’t drive good behavior and, in the worst cases, be seen as hypocritical when the leaders are acting contrary to the values.

It Takes Time

Implementing core values in your organization the right way takes time. You can get close within a few hours, but then they have to be tested and refined. Stories need to be created for each one and processes implemented to support them throughout the company. Review processes need to be modified to include them and hiring practices need to be adjusted. Behavioral interviewing ensures you are hiring people that can align with the culture. This process takes six months to a year to get to final form, but once completed the benefits are innumerable.

I know what you might be thinking: this is great, but you didn’t tell us how to “discover” our core values.  I will address this in my next blog, so join my newsletter so those answers will go straight to your inbox! Future blogs will cover the refinement and process parts of implementing your core values, which will serve to help your company grow.

As always if you have any specific questions you would like to see covered here on the blog or even on my weekly radio show, Transformative Experts on VoiceAmerica, email me directly at [email protected].