Yes, this is another post about discovering and living core values in your biz. Feeling a bit jaded about “core values,” thinking that they are feel-good marketing hooey? Have you seen too many posters that proved to be all talk with no connection to observable actions? If so, you’ve been missing the impact of authentic, gut-level values.

As for your potentially snarky thoughts about values, your concerns do have some basis. Core values as expressed by some companies aren’t really core. They aren’t real, right now. They are aspirational, a list of the characteristics the company wants to have and perhaps is striving to acquire. Sometimes values reveal themselves as non-core and inauthentic because they are stated in generic terms. (Honesty and integrity, anyone?) And frankly, some stated values are noticeable primarily because they fall in direct contrast with the behavior that the business demonstrates.

Discerning authentic core values

Real core values are beliefs that you are willing to fire an employee (or customer) over. They are so important to you that you would be willing to take a financial hit to live in alignment with them. True core values are not hearts and flowers, they are blood and bones. They are foundations, rules for living, guideposts for running your operation inside and out.

Rather than wordsmith your way into a set of “good” core values, look around and you’ll see that your deeply held values are already revealing themselves.

  • Are you a maniac about being on time, every time, for everything?
  • Do you blow a gasket at dismissive, impersonal service?
  • When posed with a choice between working late and catching your kid’s baseball game, do you choose the baseball game every time?
  • How did you handle it the last time someone on your team cost the company money while trying something new, or while doing an “old” thing in a new way?
  • This list of values-in-action questions could be endless – the point is to notice what is already there. That’s how you find values that are core.

You might already be familiar with Jim Collins’ “Mission to Mars” exercise that helps to reveal core values, but just in case you are not, here’s one way to get it started :  Imagine that you are selecting a small team (no more than 5) from your company to go on a mission to Mars.  It could be dangerous, and nobody on Mars has any clue about earthlings. Who would you send, and why?

Your choices of who to send and why reveal what is important to you. You choose to send Frank because he is innovative, send Sam because he looks out for the team, and send JoAnn because she is as reliable as the sunrise. (No space pun intended.) These selected employees are the embodiment of your core values.

Values as hiring criteria

Does your current hiring process incorporate a values-matching process with the candidates?  Think about this: if your company is like many, you are using a skills and competencies model to select from a crowd of applicants. The shortcoming in this approach is that you can train for skills and competencies. You cannot train for values. The candidate with the best skills match could become your worst employee if he or she isn’t in alignment with what the company thinks is “blood and bones” important.

Core values are your voice in the room when an employee is required to make a decision for which there is no precedent, or when there is no time to ask someone for input. Real core values reduce conflict, because they are the shared reference points that unite teams.

Communicating and reinforcing core values

One of the occupational hazards of being a CEO or other senior leader in your company is that you feel like you are repeating yourself. And guess what? If you are a good one, you are repeating yourself. For core values, you can reinforce in numerous ways:

  • Yes, postersand express your values in a way that fits with your company culture
  • Success stories – in company newsletters, at meetings, during team huddles, etc. talk about situations where people demonstrated their alignment with core values
  • Awards and heroes – catch team members doing things right (lined up with values) and recognize them in public for it
  • Tchotchkes, shirts and other swag – wear your values, hand them out, pass them around
  • Go big – consider whether some companywide initiative will enable you to really “live into” one of your values