Monday Mornings with Madison

Core Values: Establishing and Executing

What does the company stand for?  Where does it fit in this world?  What are its’ “ways” of doing things?  The answer to those questions is what lies at the heart of any company’s core values.  Apple’s core value – established by Steve Jobs – was that people with passion can change the world.  When they launched the Mac computer, their campaign slogan was “Think Different.”  Their advertisements didn’t show computers.  In fact, their ads had nothing to do with their product.   It was about people who had changed the world.  Likewise, the core value for milk – represented by the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council for what is the quintessential commodity – is that milk is good for you, which some argue is not even true.  Their most famous advertising campaign — based on their core value — was “Got Milk?”, which also did not show the product.  It actually showed the absence of the product, but the core value was clear.

When a company’s leadership wants to establish core values for the organization, it needs to consider its place in the world.  How is the company different from other organizations?  What values speak to how the company’s employees work, interact and behave?  What values jive with the organization’s brand and reinforce its identity?  When seeing the company’s products, services or employee’s behaviors, would customers be able to pick them out as distinctly of that organization?  Those are some of the questions to consider in formulating core values.

Here are six steps to creating unique and meaningful core values that can serve as the foundation for any forward-thinking organization.

Step 1:  Begin with a Blank Slate

The biggest problem in “identifying core values” is that leaders often start with an idea of what those core values should be, without really being open to asking the questions of what core values should apply.  A company’s leadership team should begin with a blank slate, embarking on a journey of discovery.  Without any predetermined notions, the goal is to access more ideas and a fresh perspective on the business.  It is imperative to approach the discovery of core values without any preconceived ideas or beliefs about the business, industry or clientele.  Simply acknowledging that the conscious mind may not know all the answers is a good launching point.

Step 2: Identify Internal Values

Select a small group of the organization’s most experienced and engaged employees.  Have each person in this group list what they believe to be the company’s imperatives, ideal behaviors, desired skills, and actual (not ideal) strengths.  Here are questions they should answer:

  • What defines the culture at our company?
  • What values do you bring to your work that you consistently uphold whether or not they are rewarded?
  • What do you truly stand for in your work?
  • What do you believe our company truly stands for?
  • What do our company’s customers believe about the organization?
  • What do they believe our company stands for?
  • What values does our company consistently adhere to in the face of obstacles?
  • What are our company’s greatest strengths?
  • What are the top three to five most important behaviors and skills we should expect from every employee?

It is vital for the CEO to play a role in facilitating the discussion about core values. Employees need to see that the top leader takes the process seriously and that it’s not just some marketing gimmick for PR purposes. If the top brass doesn’t take the process seriously, it’s unlikely that employees will.  That said, the CEO should not shape or influence the discussion.

The goal is to discover the pre-existing values within an existing organization.  (For a startup, this step should be skipped.)  Rather than try to create values that aren’t already part of the organization’s ethos, it is better to highlight the organization’s current strengths and build on those.

Step 3: Create Value Clusters

Combine the answers from step 2 into a big master list.  If the team was allowed to contribute openly and freely, there should be anywhere from 20 to 100 values on the list. Of course, that’s too much to be either actionable or memorable, so these values must be synthesized into related themes.  Values like precision, accuracy, correctness, craftsmanship, and detail-orientation are clearly related to one another. Group them together.  Values like above-and-beyond service, attentiveness, welcoming, friendly and respect for others are all related.  Find the thread that runs through value sets.

Step 4: Identify the Theme of each Value Cluster

The next step is to find the theme of each value cluster.  In the above example, values like precision, accuracy, correctness, craftsmanship, and detail-orientation can be centered around the core value of quality control.  Values like above-and-beyond service, attentiveness, welcoming attitude, friendliness and respect for others can be clustered around the idea of customer service excellence.   Values such as assertiveness, productivity, results-oriented, take-charge, and hard work can be clustered around the theme of action-driven. This process is best done with a small team, but this brainstorm session can be done in an open meeting as well.

Step 5: Narrow the Focus

So far so good, but now comes the hard part. After completing step 4, a company may still have a sizable list of values.  The list must be narrowed further to ensure the final core values chosen are both actionable and memorable in all situations forever.  That means cutting things out, which means sacrificing some values for the sake of others.  After all, it is impossible to be all things to all people. A company’s culture must be unique.  It is what differentiates it from all other competitors.  The core values then must emphasize what matters most to the collective.  It should highlight what makes an organization a place where talented people want to work.  It should represent the current and ultimate expression of the company’s culture.

Here are a few questions to help further whittle the list down:

  • What values are absolutely essential to the organization’s work environment?
  • What values represent the primary behaviors that the organization wants to encourage and stand by?
  • What values are essential to supporting the company’s unique culture?

Some core values may be unconventional, controversial, quirky or even downright odd.

But they must be infused into everything the company does or else there is no point.  How so?  Case in point.  Two years ago, Chinese mega-online retailer Alibaba went public on the New York Stock Exchange.  In his brief speech, after the market closed on the day of the IPO, Co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Ma stressed Alibaba’s values:  Customer First, Teamwork, Embrace Change, Integrity, Passion and Commitment.  If those sound like generic values, think again.  Mr. Ma does not just talk the talk of core values.  He walks the walk.  Instead of taking his place in the spotlight on the New York Stock Exchange during the history-making event of taking his company public, he had eight customers ring the NYSE’s opening bell while he watched off stage. Mr. Ma made it very clear to the world and all of the company’s customers that Alibaba’s core values were genuine.

Step 6:  Finalize the Core Values

While a one-word value might be easier to remember, it is difficult for a single word to become a distinct expression of a company’s culture. And it is incredibly difficult for a single-word value to trigger an emotional response with employees.  So word-smithing values into memorable phrases or sentences forces an organization to succinctly define the meaning behind each value.

To do this, companies should use inspiring words that trigger emotional responses.  Because of all the noise inundating our brains, customers will ignore mundane and commonplace terms such as “great customer service.”  Instead, Zappos’ core value is to “Deliver WOW Through Service.”    For Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, their core values were to “Make Gung Ho Employees” in order to ignite their workers and “Create Customers that are Raving Fans.”  Talk about descriptive, memorable core values.

To determine if an organization’s core values are the right fit, ask these questions:

  • Will each value help the company make decisions, especially tough ones?
  • Are the core values memorable?
  • Will every team member be able to encode them in their minds?
  • Does each value represent distinct elements of the overall culture?
  • Does each value speak to at least one desired behavior?
  • Will the company be willing to uphold these values 50 years from now?
  • Are those values congruent with the behavior of the leadership?
  • Can the organization hold up these values in stressful and difficult situations such as during an economic down cycle or a corporate restructuring?
  • Is the leadership willing to have the core values permeate through the entire organization?

If the answer to each question is yes, then the company is ready to roll out its core values to employees and the public.  With a bedrock of solid core values, a company can venture into the ever-changing marketplace with a clear vision of what it stands for and its place in the world.  Onward!

Quote of the Week

“Core values serve as a lighthouse when the fog of business seems to leave you wandering in circles; when you encounter that moment where every decision is a tough one and no choice seems to clearly be the better choice.” J. Loren Norris


© 2016, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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