Discovering Your Company’s Core Values

My last blog emphasized the importance of core values as the basis of a business’s culture. For companies that have an intentional culture, core values define who should be part of the company and who should not. The biggest problem I come across in my daily work with correcting company cultures to accelerate profit is not that leaders don’t understand the importance of core values, but they either don’t utilize them correctly or, worse, tolerate contrary behaviors. In the end, they don’t have core values at all, just some nice words on the wall that are, if anything, aspirational.

Many times, when I start working with a company, the core values need to be changed or even rewritten completely. Now, I’m not saying the people who created the company’s core values didn’t have good intentions, and, often the words on their walls are nice and related to some feel-good behaviors, but I am saying they are often not rooted in authenticity. Remember, if you aren’t willing to fire someone whose behaviors are contradictory to the values and if the cost of keeping those people around isn’t high enough, then core values don’t exist.

When true core values aren’t discovered or identified, then accidental values can appear, driving conflicting behaviors. How does this happen? Simple, the original process for discovering the core values was done incorrectly. I recently took on a new client who had invested a significant amount of money for a consultant to come up with their values. After asking a few simple questions, it was clear that the list of core values they had was flawed. Like I just mentioned, they made everyone feel good but did not call people to action around the culture. While their terms were important concepts for every company – “teamwork,” “integrity,” and “quality” – this specific set of core values did not generate the level of uniqueness that is mandatory to achieve success.

The first red flag was that the final set of values were created in just one session, after several hours in a room discussing things they like and feel are important, facilitated by one of many consultants who will guide companies to the same bland results which don’t drive action. While you can certainly come up with a draft of values in one session, it takes much longer to build them out, socialize them throughout the company, clarify, edit, and more, until a final set of core values are identified. You know when this occurs when the final product is no longer negotiable and behaviors contrary to the values will not be tolerated at any cost. And, yes, you can get there.

How do you discover your core values? Have you noticed that I have used the words “discover” and “identify” throughout this blog when alluding to getting to the right core values? This is because you don’t “create” them. They are already part of your company and reflective of the founder and top leadership of the company. Getting to core values must then utilize a process of discovery.

While I’m sure there are many efficient discovery methods, the process I utilize today has been refined over 20 years and includes a scenario I learned about from an article written by one of my favorite authors Jim Collins. I now use this scenario as a tee-up for a thought exercise that, if done correctly, will get you a solid “draft” set of core values.

The scenario is “Mission to Mars”, and here is how I do it. First, assemble the highest level team and leaders of the company in a room – I find it best to include 6-10 people in this exercise. Please do not have anyone in the room that has questionable behaviors or intent as they can derail the conversation or take the exercise off track, resulting in artificial or inaccurate results. Also, allot for at least 4 hours to conduct this exercise. While you can do this yourself, a good facilitator can be a help here, be careful in who you choose as there are a lot of facilitators who provide mediocre to poor results.

Step 1

Once everyone is there, pose Collins’s scenario, which goes something like this: Intelligent life was discovered on Mars. The powers that be want to send a group of people that represent the best planet Earth has to offer, but cannot decide who. After a lot of discussions, it was decided that the task of choosing people will be delegated to your team.

So the exercise then follows. Each person around the table should pick 2-3 people that would be great representatives of our planet (if the group is on the smaller side, I let them pick 3 and larger groups pick 2).

Now we move into some rules and steps I have refined over the years. Each person chosen must either currently work at the company or have worked at the company in the recent past. Next, only people outside of the room can be chosen – none of the exercise participants can go. Lastly, each person should represent the best the company has to offer. Remember, we aren’t trying to send people we want to get rid of for three years!

Step 2

After they pick their participants, we create a list of all the proposed mission members. It is okay, and actually good if in some cases exercise participants around the table chose the same people. When this happens, the person who has been mentioned multiple times is probably a great example of the core values. We will start with those people first.

Step 3

For this next step, I utilize some display software with arranging capabilities. This is not necessary though and PostIt notes can be used instead. In any event, the exercise is easier when you can move comments around and group things.

We start with the person who was mentioned the most. I will ask the question, “What makes this person so great?” People start describing the person and each descriptor is written on a PostIt note and put on the wall. Once the list is exhausted, we go to the next person and I ask the same question except I’m looking for additional comments, not duplicates. This process keeps going person by person until nothing else is added. In my experience, this usually happens by the time we get to the seventh or eighth person. Even at that point, though, there still may be several people on the list. I will then just touch base on each person quickly to see if anything was missed.

Step 4

It’s now time to do the first round of refining the information. The exercise participants start moving the PostIt notes around and grouping them by a value category. While I am trying to get to 3-5 final groupings, at this stage I’m not trying to shoehorn all comments into a small set of groupings.

Step 5

Once the groupings are complete, we now pick the 3-5 largest groups. These will become the basis of our draft set of core values. Each group is discussed and a word or set of words is established to describe the grouping in total. These words may be directly off one or more of the PostIt notes, or it may be something different, but in any event, they will describe a core value that is tied to the personality traits or behaviors that are included in the group. To further validate the exercise at this point, I am looking for the energy and excitement of the participants. When they pick a descriptor for a grouping they really like and feels right, they will be excited about it.

Once the words are picked for the 3-5 groups the team chose to work on, you now have a draft set of core values.

Next Steps

This isn’t the end, though. Taking your core values “live” immediately can be problematic and while you may be excited to roll them out, there is still work to be done to get the core values more refined. Most importantly, it is necessary to involve others in the company with the validation and refinement processes. Stories have to be written and communication strategies to be established, plus much more. Getting them right, can take some time.

Soon, I will talk about how to move from draft to actionable core values, so make sure you have signed up for my newsletter. In the meantime, if you have any questions or would like a little help, feel free to contact me here or reach out on social media. We cover a lot of these topics on my radio show Transformative Experts so don’t forget to tune in. Until then, good luck in building your core values-based culture!