Core values are just that: values held at the very core of a company.
Together, they are the code that defines the ethos, culture and personality of a company, that drives crucial decision-making and that inspires pride in your employees and confidence in your customers and stakeholders.
Core values are not boasts about your superiority to your competitors; rather, they are the utterly non-negotiable tenets that influence every aspect of how you conduct your business.
Let’s put that a simpler way: Core values are what you stand for.
What you stand for. Isn’t it a good idea to know what that is?
“To me, marketing is about values. This is a very complicated world, it’s a very noisy world. And we’re not going to get the chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. So we have to be really clear on what we want them to know about us.”
Core values of a company play a very important part in establishing a business in today’s competitive market. They are both standards to abide by and guidelines to remain within.
Core values set the standards by which everyone involved in the organization is expected to operate. As James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras put it, “Core Values are the essential and enduring tenets of an organization. A small set of timeless guiding principles that require no external justification; they have intrinsic value and importance to those inside the organization.” (Harvard Business Review 1996)
How Core Values Influence Your Business Practices
Core values influence a business in many subtle ways, colouring your culture and coming into play when hard decisions must be taken, but there are three areas where core values play a fundamental role:
As our world – and your business sector – gets more and more competitive, customers are increasingly searching for companies that share their own values. Demonstrable values such as transparency, fair and ethical trading, concern for the environment, quality of workmanship, etc., attract customers who are looking for more than the lowest price or greatest convenience. The more your core values resonate with your customers perceptions of what constitute good business practices, the greater your edge over your competitors.
All your communications – formal or informal – should be informed by your core values. Externally, this means that your website, advertising, brochures, annual reports, newsletters, social media communications, etc., both reflect and celebrate your core values, helping to establish your brand as one linked to identifiable and attractive tenets. This is especially important in internal communications including such issues as performance reviews, team building activities, employee recognition, etc. Continually assessing how fully your teams embody your core values – and publicly recognising the best examples – is crucial to establishing and sustaining a values-driven culture.
Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines, has been quoted as saying, ‘Hire for attitude. Train for skill.’
Attitude is an outward manifestation of values, and unlike skills it is a difficult (or impossible) thing to teach. If your core values are clear, and clearly communicated, you will attract employees who truly want to work in a company that share their values, and your resulting team will be more motivated from the outset, and more proud and inspired in their jobs.
Identifying Core Values
Identifying and articulating core values is one of the most significant processes in strategic planning, but it isn’t necessarily easy. Too many companies skip the indispensible strategic planning step of setting and agreeing core values, or they pay it lip-service by identifying vague, generic values that could as easily apply to a multinational corporation as to a cheese shop.
But taking the time (and it can, and probably should, take a great deal of time) to identify truly useful core values is worth every second spent. Because a solid, documented set of core values is fundamental to building a compelling and sustainable brand.
A core value is something you truly believe in and your company truly embodies. This may be something like ‘treating customers and employees with respect’ or ‘great customer service and satisfaction.’ Make sure you choose core values which embody the essence of the sector you are operating in.
The core values must be honest and realistic. Don’t be tempted to make an impressive list of lofty core values that you can’t actually live up to. Such self-deception will inevitably come back to haunt you (after all, a central reason to have core values is to communicate them widely and often!) For example, there is no point having a core value of ‘dedicated personal customer service’ if this does not in reality make up part of your business – and your unsatisfied customers will come out of the woodwork to point out the hypocrisy.
The ‘money test’ is a quick way to determine the authenticity of a core value. Will your business continue to adhere to the value even if there are cheaper alternatives available? For example, with regard to product quality, if there were a cheaper ingredient or component available which would alter the quality of the product, would the business continue to use the higher quality, more expensive, component? If so then ‘dedication to product quality’ would indeed be a core value.
Core values often begin with a single word such as ‘integrity’ or ‘innovation,’ but in order to make them specific to what your business actually stands for it is usually necessary to add a defining term, phrase or even a short sentence or paragraph. Some companies profess a long list of core values, others a single guiding concept that expresses how they want the world to view them.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 to rescue it from years of ‘brand neglect,’ he defined their core value like this:
“We believe people with passion can change the world for the better … and that those people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who actually do”
See anything in there about computers, phones or iPods?
One way to begin identifying your company’s core values is to compile a list of nouns and phrases expressing various values and highlight those that ring true and feel truly central to your organisation. (Ideally, you should involve everyone in the organisation in this process, to ensure that you develop a truly shared set of values and mutual culture).
Here’s one to get you started:
- Individual Responsibility
Then, try to narrow the list to those that are absolutely essential and non-negotiable.
Next, take it one step further (this is where many companies fall down, settling for vagueness). Ask yourself exactly what you mean by ‘honesty,’ for example, or ‘loyalty.’ Can you define your term succinctly, and in a way that leaves no room for exception? Is it absolutely central to what you stand for? Excellent! You’ve identified a core value.
For example, one company that identified ‘teamwork’ as a core value defined it as ‘all of us supporting one another to ensure the success of the company by taking care of the team that takes care of the customer.’
Now, keep going until you feel (and your team feel) that you’ve articulated all the necessary values to which you are committed. This may be a list of ten or more values, or – as in the Apple example above – a single guiding value that says it all. In any case, strive for brevity. This is definitely a case in which less is more.
Common Organizational Core Values and Beliefs
Here is a list of some core values that most organizations strive for (interesting to observe which ‘Perspective’ they fall into in the Balanced Scorecard – see diagram below):
- The customer is king.
- It is because of customers that businesses thrive.
- Therefore customers must be satisfied by being offered excellent service.
- An organization cannot function without its employees.
- Therefore employees should be fully supported by the organization, so that their intellect, imagination, creativity, innovation and potential can be fully realized.
- An organization will conduct its business with honesty and integrity.
- Therefore it will develop trust and meaningful relationships with whosoever it deals with, be it customers, employees, suppliers or others.
- An organization will work efficiently striving to optimally use resources.
- Efficiency plays a big role in business ethics.
Example Core Values
- Corporate social responsibility
- Unequivocal excellence in all aspects of the company
- Science-based innovation
- Honesty & integrity
- Profit, but profit from work that benefits humanity
There’s some nice specificity and originality here – especially their qualified acknowledgment of profit. ‘Honesty, integrity and excellence’ are a bit generic.
- No cynicism
- Nurturing and promulgation of “wholesome American values”
- Creativity, dreams and imagination
- Fanatical attention to consistency and detail
- Preservation and control of the Disney “magic”
This first is a cracker! What large company has the courage to declare something like ‘no cynicism?’ Using terms like ‘dreams,’ ‘magic’ and ‘fanatical’ shows real originality and a clarity of understanding. You know just what Disney stands for.
- Integrity and honesty
- Passion for customers, for our partners, and for technology
- Openness and respectfulness
- Taking on big challenges and seeing them through
- Constructive self-criticism, self-improvement, and personal excellence
- Accountability to customers, shareholders, partners, and employees for commitments, results, and quality
This one is a bit flat and ‘corporate,’ as you’d expect from a massive multinational, but ‘taking on big challenges…’ and ‘constructive self-criticism’ are bold and motivating.
- We do what we say
- We do it with respect
- We do it fairly
- We do it with integrity
- We execute with speed
- We take prudent risks
- We work as a team
- We are accountable for all our actions
- We make tough decisions
- We are performance driven
This one takes a list of fairly common values (‘respect’ ‘fairness’ ‘integrity’ ‘accountability’) but delivers them in a kind of chant or mantra, making them much more compelling and memorable. We’ve no idea what ‘performance driven’ means.
Our Values … The StrategyPal Way
The client is king
This goes first for our own clients – mentors using StrategyPal to add value for their clients. We keep StrategyPal user-friendly, so the tool augments and supports the delivery of quality strategic mentoring. Mentors always have complete control over the system, and it’s a snap to tailor StrategyPal to meet the unique and changing needs of each of their client companies.
Secondly, the simple, intuitive structure and interface of StrategyPal means that all users can seamlessly embrace the process as part of their daily work routine. We keep the learning curve short and sweet, so it’s a simple matter for your clients to roll up their sleeves while you guide them in thinking, planning and working strategically.
Strategy first, last and always
We are all about strategy. StrategyPal was born out of our belief that strategy saves businesses and builds success, even … make that especially … in difficult economic times. Although using StrategyPal every day certainly makes day-to-day operations run more smoothly and efficiently, the focus is always on how those operations are clearly linked to and visibly support the implementation of agreed, appropriate strategic goals.
Strategy mentors are irreplaceable
StrategyPal was not created to replace mentors. Quite the contrary, the system was developed to make it possible for more companies to avail of the invaluable strategic benefit mentors provide. By making mentoring more focused and systematic, StrategyPal brings innovative efficiency to one-on-one mentoring, thus enabling mentors to guide far more clients than they could possibly handle without this tool. StrategyPal keeps the mentor’s goals for the client at the forefront of daily activity, obviating the need for long and frequent one-on-one sessions, whilst keeping client and mentor in constant contact throughout the strategic delineation, creation, implementation and review process.
Excellence is a starting point
Before releasing StrategyPal, we honed it to the highest levels of excellence we could – testing, revising, innovating and testing again, until using it became as easy and natural as checking your email. But we refuse to be satisfied with excellence. We are committed to continuously improving StrategyPal. First and foremost, we seek and respond to client feedback. You are the users, after all, and know best what you love most and what you’d like to see changed, and how.
Secondly, we are committed to innovation and creativity, thinking laterally and always looking to the future to discover new opportunities to integrate into the StrategyPal system for our mentors and their clients.
Trust the process
Businesses improve incrementally. Managers, employees too, alter their perspectives, increase their efficiency and develop better habits a few steps at a time. StrategyPal recognises this; we designed it to enable clients to move at an ambitious but comfortable pace of improvement. It gets everyone united, moving forward in a common direction from which real change emerges, coalescing, analysing, thinking, planning, doing, measuring and reviewing to continuously implement improvements that are incremental, cumulative … enduring. And very importantly, progress is tracked in vivid charts and graphs, building motivation and reward into the system and keeping clients focused and inspired as the process progresses toward success.