On the first day of our company, my cofounder and I wrote a list of core values to guide us. The list included concepts like resilience and accountability, and we talked a lot about questioning first principles. It was a great list.
But as our business grew, we realized our values were ultimately just words because we’d written them before we had a team. And the reality is this: You don’t choose your core values. Your company’s values are implied by the behaviors the people within your organization exhibit—and mostly the behaviors they exhibit when you’re not looking.
In other words, I believe you can’t create your values; you can only discover them alongside the people who make your company what it is.
So, last year—after we became a company of 60 employees—we went through the companywide process of defining our core values all over again. That exercise was challenging, but it was vital to the health of our business. It will be for your company as well.
Here’s how we refreshed our core values, and how you can do it, too.
Assemble a team.
Defining your core values is fundamentally about “we,” not “I,” so don’t do it by yourself. You’ll need people around you who can challenge your thinking, ask good questions and own the output of the process. A huge amount of our value work was done by leaders in our brand and people teams, and, without them, we would have ended up with a far inferior outcome. In short, put together a creative, diverse team and you’ll already be halfway to the finish line.
Gather information, not conclusions.
Next, you need unbiased information about your team’s behaviors. Here’s how we did that and how you can, too:
• We defined our goals. Articulating our goals in a companywide memo forced us to clearly articulate the situation, the proposed solution and the intended impact. It also provided important documentation of a decision that would affect the future of the company.
• We held in-depth interviews with a small group of employees. Our core values team selected a group of six employees who represented a range of job functions, seniority and locations. We asked each employee how they felt about our culture, which values stood out and where they thought we had room to develop.
• We conducted an all-company survey. We developed a survey for each member of our team to fill out. We’d seen certain themes arise during the interviews, and we wanted to understand if the same themes would emerge out of a larger sample size. (They did.)
• We held an all-day, all-team event. We wanted to leverage the human connection in our core values process, so we held “Core Values Day.” The event started with cross-department, small-group sessions and became a companywide discussion about the culture, behavior and stories that make our organization what it is.
After those steps, we walked away with a large list of “core value candidates.” But we’d made no decisions yet. And that’s critical: However you choose to gather information about your values, it’s important not to draw conclusions too early. Commit to a set of values before the data is in and you risk an end product that confirms your own bias.
Take responsibility for synthesizing.
Synthesizing the information was my job, and if you’re the CEO, it’s your job, too. It’s tempting to delegate this task, but the CEO is the leader of culture, and after the information is collected, it’s your responsibility to make the tough calls regarding your company’s vision.
For me, this was a two-step process: First, I did a careful reading of the raw data as well the summaries put together by my team. Then, I compiled a list of nine operating principles that I felt encompassed the values I’d seen expressed throughout the process.
Look outside yourself.
Don’t fall in love with your own ideas. You’re going to get feedback, so expect and welcome it. When I presented the core team with my draft of our refreshed values, our head of brand suggested that I think about our core values differently. That feedback wasn’t easy to hear, but she was right, and the list we ultimately landed on was much better for it.
Bottom line: You need to cross-check your work. Get the inside view by talking with trusted members of your team to ensure your core values aren’t just about you. Make sure to get the wider industry view, too, by looking at the operating principles of successful companies in your space.
Don’t skip the launch.
Take the time to launch your core values. When you present them to the entire company, explain how you arrived at the final draft, how you incorporated feedback and how you expect these refreshed values to inform your company.
The launch of your refreshed core values is a new beginning. It’s an opportunity to show your team that company decisions aren’t being made in a black box. Team input is crucial at every step of the process.
Why work on core values at all?
Let’s talk about first principles because it’s worth asking why any of this is worth doing in the first place. After all, you have plenty of high-value tasks to do and little time to do them. Why should “core values” earn a place on your to-do list?
The best answer I can give is: Your company already has values, whether you’ve written them down. If you don’t define them, it won’t stop them from defining you. Every choice you make, every priority your team sets and every hire you make is both a function of and an influence upon your core values. Not deciding what those values are is still a decision—a decision to drive blind. To know your core values is to know what’s really guiding you, and that should be at the top of every leader’s priority list.