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.
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.