A company's core values are a very different set of statements compared to its vision and mission. While the latter two tell us where the company is headed and why it exists, core values declare what is important to the organization, how its people behave, and what guides decisions.
One feature of core values that I believe is important is describing it with a sentence, not just a word. For example, the most common core value I see and hear is "Integrity." When used individually, the word is open to interpretation: what "integrity" means to you might be different from what it means to me. But when it's articulated as "We do what's right for the customer (or business, employees, etc.)", people can understand what integrity actually means to the organization. The same goes for other one-word values, such as freedom, autonomy, passion, accountability, service, and so on.
Secondly, I believe values should be operational or emergent rather than aspirational. Using a future-tense or conditional word usually makes a values statement aspirational in nature: "We will treat everyone with dignity and respect." or "We should treat everyone with dignity and respect." In either case, that extra word takes a little bite out of the core value and may communicate that it's not something people currently do.
Instead, statements that reflect the language and behavior in the business - what people actually say and do every day - are more powerful, and that's where the word "operational" comes into play. Therefore, if a company has the value that "We treat everyone with dignity and respect." (without that extra word), it should reflect the actual language and behavior in the business today.
I also use the word "emergent" because when it comes to early- or growth-stage companies, my experience is that the values are evolving quickly as the company grows and adds people. One new hire can often change the entire company's values (either positively or negatively) and the entire team is still learning how it works together to achieve common objectives. Therefore, I believe that values "emerge" over time as the people get to know one another and experience what they say and do in the business on a daily basis.
Here are an assortment of values statements from different companies. These aren't complete lists of their core values, just a selection.
Collaboration - Leverage collective genius
Integrity - Be real
Accountability - If it is to be, it's up to me
Passion - Committed in heart and mind
Quality - What we do, we do well
Obviously, it's a blend of individual words and phrases but I believe they're more aspirational than operational, open to interpretation, and come across more as catch phrases than genuine, living values. Then again, Coca-Cola might be more of a branding company than anything else so their values statements may be a better fit for the organization than we think at first glance.
We sell the highest quality natural and organic products available.
We satisfy, delight and nourish our customers.
We support team member excellence and happiness.
We create wealth through profits and growth.
We serve and support our local and global communities.
A strong set of values statements, in my opinion, and very reflective of a values-based organization. Complete sentences that don't leave a lot to interpretation, are reflective of what they say and do on a daily basis (as a customer and student of the company, I can confirm that), and don't come across as marketing-speak.
We create remarkable experiences though ingenuity, high standards, over-communication, and details.
We practice what we teach and preach.
We push ourselves and our Tribe to get better every single day.
We create safe and trusting environments for people to be themselves.
We treat each person with high touch and love as if they are the only one.
We recently completed our core values because we finally had a few years of operating experience under our belt. And hopefully it goes without saying that these statements reflect the blend between this blog post and our first core value!
THE IMPORTANCE OF VALUES STATEMENTS
To me, there are four main reasons why core values are important to an organization:
Culture and direction. A company's values statements can tell employees what matters to that company and how people speak and behave on a daily basis, the basics of its culture. Furthermore, when added to the vision and mission statements, the values help elaborate on how the company plans to achieve its loftier goals.
Alignment and decision-making. Values help keep both leadership and employees aligned to what's most important to that company. I've seen many organizations who, when faced with the challenge of making a tough decision, use their values statements to bring the divergent views into alignment. In a similar way, when a decision needs to be made and there is a lack of direction of how to make it, values statements can help direct the team.
Inspiration and productivity. I believe that values statements, especially in growth-stage companies, can be a source of inspiration to its team. It's up to the leadership team to consistently say the values out loud to remind the rest of the team. When crafted correctly, like the example above for Whole Foods, the values statements can be inspiring which helps make everyone work harder and be more productive.
Marketing and talent. We've heard and seen companies use their values statements in job descriptions, on proposals, on web sites, in brochures, and other communication tools. People like to do business with those they like and respect, and one way to enhance that is to find people with shared values; the only way to do that is to share your own.
THE SECRET TO CRAFTING CORE VALUES
In my experience, the easiest way to think about, and write, an organization's core values has been to compare them to family values. Whether it's the family you grew up with, or the family you have now, you have a set of values that are operational and emergent. Your family's values reflect how everyone behaves and what they say on a daily basis, and probably emerged from discussions that the parents had of their standards and expectations for the household (no swearing, everyone eats together, we vacation together once a year, etc.).
If someone speaks or behaves in violation of one of the values, there can be disappointment, frustration, confrontation, disagreement, and possibly discipline. While some of those outcomes may be harsh in a business environment, the same idea applies: we use the values to reflect what we believe in and how we want people to behave and speak.
Your family values are ideas that are communicated with sentences and paragraphs, not single words. They help your family make decisions and keep everyone on the same page. They inspire family members to behave a certain way with one another. And they're used for "marketing and talent", to help signal the types of people you want to be around, whether it's friends or even other family members.