Core Values: The Secret to Creating a Thriving Company Culture

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When I say core values what words come to mind? Words like integrity, diversity, inspiration, community, creativity, sustainability... blah, blah, blah. Right? This is the problem with most companies’ core values: too often, they’re just empty words that mean nothing to the people they’re meant to inspire. They’re usually created from a well intended place, but miss the mark when it comes to language. Stringing together a bulleted list of highly aspirational words does nothing for your staff. In fact, your staff probably doesn't even know what your core values are.

It doesn't have to be this way! Core values are an important piece of your foundational content that your staff should know and identify with. You've laid the foundation with a mission statement: their rallying cry for why they get out of bed every morning and go to work for you. You've painted a picture of what the world looks like once your mission statement has been achieved with a vision statement that is aspirational and points the team in the direction you want to go. But how will they get there? What are the rules and guidelines for the road ahead?

Enter your core values. Your core values are the scaffolding of your foundation. They are the rules of engagement for how to achieve your mission and vision. Core values lay expectations and tell your employees the behaviors that are appropriate in every situation.

Developing a strong set of core values is key to creating a vibrant culture within your organization. Do you see now why creating a list of words like “integrity” and “creativity” is not going to work?

How to develop your core values

Start with a verb

Your core values should always start with a verb. Remember, you don’t want to just list a bunch of good qualities, you want to build the rules of engagement for how employees should interact in your organization. Actions mean you need verbs. Verbs help add meaning to your core values.

For example, if you want your employees to act with empathy when interacting with customers, instead of just saying “empathy”, you could say “embrace empathy.” Embracing empathy has way more meaning than just the word empathy.

Here is a list of action verbs you can download that might help.

Get your employees involved

Your mission and vision statements will likely come from you as the leader or founder of the organization. Your core values, however should be vetted through your employees. Start by coming up with a list that you think exemplifies the culture you are trying to create and then ask for a reaction from your staff.

Pose this question to them: “Is this an accurate reflection of what makes us special?”

If your list doesn't make sense to them, then you need to revise the language. One word of warning with staff involvement: don’t have too many cooks in the kitchen. Have a large feedback group so everyone is heard, but use a much smaller group to craft the language. If too many people contribute to the edits it becomes too much.

Continue this process until you nail it (the process could take a year or more).

Use catch phrases

It’s pretty common for an organization to develop its own catch phrases as the culture is being developed. These catch phrases are great to incorporate into your core values because they capture the culture and embody what makes you so special.

The Goulet Pen Company is a great first hand experience of how catch phrases become part of your core values. I recently worked with Goulet Pen Company to help them develop their foundational content. In our sessions, a few catch phrases came up that we made into core values. “Work hard, be honest, be flexible” was one. Check out their core values video, and you’ll also see just how involved the employees were during the development process.

Describe each value

Once you get all of your sound bytes down, write 3-5 sentence descriptions for each one to provide more clarity. Your descriptions should be short, but help to establish the expectations for each of your “rules of engagement”. Remember, these are your expectations and guidelines.

Don’t create a cult

Another word of warning: don’t adhere to your core values so closely that you develop a cult in the process. You can laugh, but it does happen. It breeds a culture of uber exclusiveness where outsiders are shunned, newbies aren't welcomed, and creativity and innovation are stifled. Find a balance between new ideas, perspectives, and rules of engagement and you will be fine.  

Examples of Companies with Effective Core Values

Here are some great examples of strong core values that will help you develop your own. Be sure to visit their websites for more complete descriptions.

The Honest Co.

  • Create a Culture of Honesty.
  • Make Beauty.

  • Outperform.

  • Service Matters.

  • Sustain Life.

  • Be Accessible.

  • Give Back More.

  • Fun!

Bodybuilding.com

  1. Always be truthful and honest in every aspect of business.
  2. Give back to the people whom you owe your success to.
  3. Setting goals creates the road map to positive gains.
  4. Great things will happen with a passion for competition.
  5. It’s our goal to make the big idea bigger.
  6. Our mission is not complete until the customer says “WOW”

Buffer

  1. Always choose positivity and happiness
  2. Default to transparency
  3. Have a focus on self-improvement
  4. Be a “no ego” doer
  5. Listen first, then listen more
  6. Have a bias towards clarity
  7. Make time to reflect
  8. Live smarter, not harder
  9. Show gratitude
  10. Do the right thing

Google

  • Focus on the user and all else will follow.
  • It’s best to do one thing really, really well.
  • Fast is better than slow.
  • Democracy on the web works.
  • You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer.
  • You can make money without doing evil.
  • There’s always more information out there.
  • The need for information crosses all borders.
  • You can be serious without a suit.
  • Great just isn't good enough.

The Goulet Pen Company

(Disclosure: this is my brother’s business and I participated in their development. I’m one super-proud sister!)

  1. Work hard, be honest, be flexible.
  2. Trust is our currency.
  3. Work as a team.
  4. Empower through education.
  5. Express gratitude.
  6. Serve with passion.
  7. Care.

Rackspace

  • Fanatical support in all we do.
  • Results first. Substance over flash.
  • Treat rackers like friends and family.
  • Passion for our work.
  • Full disclosure and transparency.
  • Committed to greatness.

Southwest Airlines

Warrior Spirit

  • Work Hard
  • Desire to be the best
  • Be courageous
  • Display urgency
  • Persevere
  • Innovate

Servant’s Heart

  • Follow The Golden Rule
  • Adhere to the Principles
  • Treat others with respect
  • Put others first
  • Be egalitarian
  • Demonstrate proactive Customer Service
  • Embrace the SWA Family

Fun-LUVing Attitude

  • Have FUN
  • Don't take yourself too seriously
  • Maintain perspective
  • Celebrate successes
  • Enjoy your work
  • Be a passionate Team player

Work the Southwest Way

  • Safety and Reliability
  • Friendly Customer Service
  • Low Cost

Whole Foods

  • We Sell the Highest Quality Natural and Organic Products Available
  • We Satisfy, Delight and Nourish Our Customers
  • We Support Team Member Happiness and Excellence
  • We create wealth Through Profits and Growth
  • We Serve and Support Our Local and Global Communities
  • We Practice and Advance Environmental Stewardship
  • We Create Ongoing Win-Win Partnerships with Our Suppliers
  • We Promote the Health of Our Stakeholders Through Healthy Eating Education

Zappos

  1. Deliver WOW Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

Are you getting the gist of it? The process takes a while and for many it’s ongoing. Don’t rush it because it’s important. These are your expectations and guidelines and should be used by every employee for decision making. The biggest thing leaders can do to ensure that their core values are indicative of the culture is to listen, and have conversations with employees to capture the language as best they can. Your core values are your culture and employees need to be involved.

What do you think? Does your company have awesome core values or generic ones? I’d love to read them - leave a comment and tell me what they are.