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Has it ever occurred to you why you seem to simply click with some people but not with others? It is  funny how many times we fundamentally like or dislike someone based on their behaviours, but we  find it difficult to pin-point why. 


Core values are principles or beliefs that a person or organization views as being of paramount importance. Many persons claim to know their core values, principles, beliefs but then fail to live by  these very same core values because they fail to understand that core values exist in our behaviours.  If one firmly believes something, then his or her actions would reflect that belief. Otherwise, it  would simply mean that the belief is weak or, worse still, completely aspirational. 


The reality is that there is no good or bad core value. For example, the core value “We work hard”  may really mean that “We put long hours at work and we don’t expect to have a Work/Life balance”.  If all the team lives by that core value, then it is fine because they are all happy working long hours  and expect each other to do just the same. The trouble starts when not all the team believes it and  the opposing beliefs create friction, to say the least. The same applies to the opposite core value of  “We achieve Work/Life balance” because unless all the team wants it and lives it, the team will  experience friction. This also leads us to understand why real core values need to be reinforced by  concrete behaviours and why many companies have core value statements that feel void because  they lack the behaviours to back them. Simply plastering the core values in big print across the office  just doesn’t cut it. 


The holy grail for any business owner and organisation is to find the “right people” whom you would  want “on your bus” (Jim Collins) but in order to know what makes a right person right, you need to  understand what good looks like in your eyes, which behaviours you love and which you despise.  These are your real core values. With these in hand, you can use it as a filter to find the “right  people” to join your organisation. 


In this post, we will cover the typical mistakes that many of us make when writing our core values and then take you through the 4 steps to discover your real core value set, explaining why each step  of this process is important.


Common Pitfalls 

Before delving in the discovery exercise itself, we should first take a deeper look at what core values  should and should not be, keeping an eye open for typical mistakes made when defining one’s core  values. 


Aim your Core Values at your Internal Team 

For starters, an organisation’s core values are meant to define how the organisation’s members behave on a daily basis. As such, an organisation’s own wording of its core values should be aimed at  its internal team members and must be written in simple and clear language to ensure clarity in  communication. Forget writing your core values for marketing purposes to impress your clients and  future prospects. Your clients do not need to know your core values but you hope they will experience them through your team’s actual behaviours, which is why you need to be sure that your  internal team know, live and breathe them every day. 


Write your Core Values as an Action 

Secondly, core values must be written in the form of verbs as they are meant to describe your  expected behaviours, rather than a quality or state of affairs. For example, the word “Excellence” means “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good”, which in and by itself seems to state  that everything that the organisation’s do must be done excellently. However, this is very subjective  to the person and the situation, which means that there will be multiple instances where this is not  achieved. . In the other hand, defining the core value as “Striving for excellence” gives the meaning  that each and every employee could, in their own manner and ability, strive to improve with the aim  to excel at whatever they are doing. This seemingly subtle difference can allow you to implement  and permeate these core values across an organisation.  


Differentiate yourselves through your Core Value Set 

Thirdly, your own set of core values must really differentiate you from other companies in your  “league” and they must set a high enough barrier to entry for potential recruits to be filtered  adequately such that only the best culture matching candidates make it through to the team. 


One typical pitfall mentioned by Patrick Lencioni is finding “Permission to Play” values. These are behaviours that are considered as obviously expected by everyone, both within your organisation  and outside in the wider community. Such “Permission to Play” values do not differentiate you from  other companies in your community and therefore cannot be called “Core”. For example, if you  operate in a community that values integrity, then you cannot list “Living with integrity” as your core  value because it is in fact a value that is expected by the wider community. This does not mean that  you do not value it or that you would be ok recruiting someone who does not live by it. 


The same applies to “Accidental” values that would unintentionally build over time in an  organisation. Although these may be unique to the organisation, the fact that they just happened to  exist, without purpose and intention to promote the organisation’s cause, makes them irrelevant to  the organisation and therefore not something you would want to be differentiated by. 


Avoid the Aspirational Pitfall 

Values are considered “Aspirational” when those behaviours are not really exhibited in an  organisation but the leadership team hoped they did. For example, the core value of “Always On  Time” is aspirational if most of your employees are never exceptionally on time, always somewhat  missing their deadlines (even if just by a bit) or being late at meetings. If your core values are aspirational, then most of your team, possibly including yourself, do not exhibit these behaviours so  you surely cannot expect to see them flourish in others.  


One slight exception here was pointed out by Mikey Trafton in his presentation “Building a Bad Ass  Team”. You could consider having just one aspirational value in a larger set of core values, which you  would have purposely selected to mitigate a “negative” aspect in your own personality and for which  you would knowingly be recruiting in the near future so that it won’t remain aspirational for long. 


The Lifetime Test 

One final litmus test for your core values should be the test of time. Your core values must be  timeless and not bound to the current circumstances such as your industry today. Therefore, ask  yourselves the question whether you would retain each core value if circumstances had to change.  For example, if you value “Delivering with top notch quality”, then would you change it if your  market got swamped with low quality competitors that would be gnawing away at your profits? The question goes if you consider changing industry completely, moving from say construction to  hospitality. Remember that the core value set is there to bring like-minded, right people together as  a team, no matter when and what they happen to be doing at that point in time. 


Discovering your Core Values 

There are different approaches how to discover your core values. Remember that this process  should unearth the core values that currently already exist within you as the business leader, within the leadership team and hopefully within the better part of your current organisation. Moreover,  keep in mind that the process does not require any form of envisioning or aspiration. 

This discovery exercise must be done by the leadership team.

The first step is for every leader to spend some quiet time thinking about the best three employees,  other than members of the leadership team itself, with whom they believe they could conquer the  world if only they had more like them. The team then shares their star employees together to find a  common set of three employees favoured by most of the leadership team. 


Next, with this list of star employees, each leader should spend some quiet time thinking what  attributes or behaviours make these employees outstanding. Once again, the list of behaviours is  shared between the leadership team to make up a long list of possible candidates for your core  value set. 


The next step should be to review this long list of attributes in order to reduce it to a reasonable list  of candidate core values by combining similar terms or agreeing to remove traits that do not feel  core. During this process, the leadership team should review the remaining candidate traits for the  abovementioned pitfalls (permission-to-play, accidental, aspirational or not long lasting). You should  aim to have between 3 to 7 core values that together make your organisation’s culture distinctive  from your peers. As you try to decide whether to keep or remove a value, always keep in mind that  “less is more” and you should err on removing it from your set. 


The final step of this process is to test the core value set on the members of the leadership team.  You can do this by having every leader rate each of the other leaders against each core value. You  will want to ensure that most of your leaders exhibit most of these values, most of the time. In the  case that any of the core values are not being lived by most of the leaders, then it might be an  accidental value. If, on the other hand, you realise that just one of the leaders is distinctly not living  the core values, then you have unearthed a people issue, but that’s a story for another day.


You only harvest what you sow 

Now that you have your concrete list of real core values, you can start building and reinforcing your  organisation’s culture. You have to find every opportunity to relate your message about each core  value, celebrating real situations where you noticed such behaviours in your organisation while  tackling the wrong behaviours by nipping them at the bud. Most importantly, all your leadership  team must live and breathe these core values to the full and all the time.

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