Being a competitive company in the modern world means a lot more than selling the most product to the largest market segment. One of the most impactful ways today’s most successful companies distinguish themselves from the rest is through the culture they offer their employees. Organizational success hinges on a company’s ability to attract and retain top talent, so it makes sense that this idea has become such an important differentiator for job hunters. The core values of a company are crucial to identifying how you want your employees to behave every day, how your company takes steps to achieve goals, and what your company aims to be.
Step one for building a thriving company culture should always be gaining clarity about which core values will define the organization — a task often easier said than done. Once established, the core values of a company become the central framework for the rest of its unique culture to grow from. This culture includes everything from abundant professional growth opportunities and team outings to delivering frequent and meaningful recognition. All of these elements come together to create an equation that ultimately creates your company culture.
What are core values?
Before we begin to unpack the key principles to consider when defining core values of a company, it’s important to clarify what exactly core values are.
If your company’s mission statement is the “why,” determining all that your organization strives to accomplish, your core values are the “how.” They are the attitude that permeates each and every one of your teams’ actions. They define the nature of the processes you use to achieve key results. They set the tone for the way you approach your goals, and the standards you expect in the processes that deliver them.
These priorities should be large enough to manifest in all manner of company initiatives, and accessible enough that they relate to each team members’ unique job function. But keep in mind that “widely applicable” is not synonymous with generic — we’ll touch more on that later.
How Core Values of a Company Make an Impact
Having well-established core values benefits your company in many ways, but their impact can be broadly categorized as one of two major types:
Core values give employees the opportunity to strive for qualitative goals in addition to the usual quantitative ones. In this way, core values cultivate a sense of pride in the process as well as the product. Delivering outstanding work in a method the employee feels proud of appeals to something innately human, which will inspire engagement and motivation in your team.
When employees receive outright recognition for behaviors consistent with the core values of your company, this experience becomes more meaningful still. Such recognition encourages more preferred behavior in the future. Core values provide a unique opportunity to define the way your team collectively functions.
The core values of a company deliver externally facing benefits as well. Broadcasting company core values to the world has become increasingly common in recent years, and for good reason. The best company core values give customers the chance to connect with your brand in a new way, based on shared high-level priorities.
Take, for example, Patagonia. Long ago, they set a company core value to use their business to protect nature. The value speaks to their company-wide philosophy that industry and the environment have an ideally synergistic relationship. Patagonia’s open commitment to this priority has made them more than an activewear company in the eyes of many consumers.
Although the core values of a company won’t be developed with the consumer explicitly in mind, they inevitably offer the added benefit of a platform for deeper connection. In much the same way that core values unify your internal team around a set of shared priorities, they can unite your organization with your customers, too. Both of these major outcomes point to the fact that it is not only important, but essential to organizational success that you create core values for your company.
How do you turn cultural goals into realities?
While there is very little debate over the fact that establishing a strong company culture is critical for building a competitive organization with the potential for long-term success, the majority of companies are far from realizing their lofty cultural goals.
A recent study revealed that (unsurprisingly) 92% of CEOs and CFOs agree that improving culture would increase the overall value of their firms, not to mention internal creativity, productivity, and growth. But only 15% of leaders in the same group reported that their culture is actually where they would like it to be.
This begs the question: why the discrepancy?
The gap between cultural goals and reality at so many companies stems in large part from the fact that identifying the core values of a company can be an arduous task. Your instincts might tell you that culture is organic — something to be “felt” more than measured or tracked. This inclination deters many leaders from approaching company culture with the same kind of strategic precision they would exercise in other facets of business.
But the fact is, as with every other element of running a successful organization, you can (and should) approach establishing company culture with careful forethought and well-laid strategic plans.
The first step is to establish strong company core values. Whether that means updating an outdated iteration or starting from scratch, there are a few key principles you need to keep in mind to make your values strong. When designed well, your core values become the foundation for a top-notch workplace culture that will help your current team thrive and make top talent want to join in.
These are five of the most important insights to consider in order to generate the best company core values possible for your team:
5 Keys to Building Core Values of a Company
1. Start with What You Already Have
Although you can look to other companies for examples of how to format or phrase your core values, direct your attention internally at first.
No matter what stage of business you’re in, there are certainly existing qualities within your organization that have contributed to your success. Maybe you have a uniquely open company culture where people are never afraid to volunteer ideas, no matter how silly or serious. Build on that. Acknowledge the important contributions this quality has already made towards your business and don’t be afraid to identify and adhere to it as an official company core value.
Think about what existing qualities you want to continue to embrace, and call on members of your team to give their input as well. Integrating diverse perspectives from people with experience working in many different parts of your organization will help you to succeed in identifying the transcendent priorities that likely already unite your team. Once you have a firm grasp on what values your team has already begun to embrace, you can craft core values designed to amplify them with bold intentionality.
2. Evaluate and Embrace Your Company’s Unique Priorities
One of the most important things to understand about core values is that they are essentially statements about your company’s priorities — and sometimes, prioritizing one value means diminishing your focus on another.
Take, for example, Squarespace. One of their core values states that good work takes time. They respect their teams’ creative processes by allowing sufficient time for them to unfold fully, without pressure. Although embracing this value inevitably comes with the sacrifice of speed, Squarespace’s success as a company is a good indication that the core value has served them well.
On the other hand, one of Nike’s company core values is to “evolve immediately.” Their team considers rapid, reactive innovation a top priority, and this unique value prioritization sits in direct opposition to Squarespace’s. It’s impossible to argue whether one priority is objectively right and the other is wrong. What you can determine is that setting priorities naturally involves tradeoffs, and sometimes the process of defining the core values of a company means committing to one priority over another. If this frightens you, take comfort in the fact that you’ll end up making these mutually exclusive tradeoffs either way. So, the more intentional you can be about the ones that really matter to you, the better.
Beyond that, being bold and specific as you develop your company core values will help make them more unique. Values generic enough to apply to any organization, like honesty, hard work, and collaboration, won’t be especially effective at driving a one-of-a-kind sense of identity and purpose within your own organization. Embrace the unique priorities that set your team apart from the rest and commit to continually reinforcing them.
3. Show, Don’t Tell
One misconception that often clouds people’s ideas about core values is that they’re merely feel-good ideals that ultimately exercise little to no impact on day-to-day operations. If you conceptualize core values of a company as inspiring phrases that show up in an onboarding slideshow and are never thought of again, it’s time to take your cultural initiatives a little more seriously.
The best company core values provide opportunities for constant, actionable engagement. When you write your core values, make sure you can also generate plenty of examples of what they will (or already do) look like in practice. Include these examples every time you discuss core values with your team for maximum impact. Identifying and sharing specific instances of the actions that effectively reflect your company core values will inspire your team to strive to embody them as well.
4. Keep Company Core Values Top-of-Mind
To truly have the best company core values, it’s critical you take an active role in propagating these thoughtful priorities throughout your organization. Emphasizing organizational core values begins at onboarding, and most companies get this first step right. But if you want company core values to exercise their fullest impact, you need a plan to reinforce them far beyond day one.
Start by making sure you’ve shared your core values with every member of your team, and don’t let them forget what they are. Take measures to ensure your team sees or hears your core values all the time, whether that be by displaying them in a central location at the office or creatively incorporating them into regularly scheduled meetings.
Once you’ve circulated your core values far and wide, establish a plan to recognize when employees live up to the qualitative goals you’ve set for them. Encourage managers and other team leaders to practice frequent, value-based recognition. Not only will this kind of outright acknowledgement boost your team’s morale, but the more positive reinforcement you provide for a given behavior, the more frequently that behavior will occur — it’s psychology 101!
5. Ensure Your Core Values and Scale with Your Company
Finally, make sure your company core values have the capacity to grow along with your business. Avoid relating values to a specific product or market segment, as these circumstances can and likely will change as your company scales.
Keep in mind that core values are the how (rather than the what) of organizational operations, meaning if your company develops new services or acquires new brands, your core values should remain relevant even within the unfamiliar context.
Think through the extremes of what your organization might look like in 5, 10, and 20 years. Will the values you have in mind still apply? Your company core values will become a tool for supporting cultural consistency through challenges and unprecedented growth. Given that culture is as much an asset as anything, having core values in place to maintain it is a strategic necessity.
Crafting core values of a company involves a lot more than generating a series of statements about the things that matter to you. It means stepping back to look at what sets your organization apart, fully embracing whatever those strengths are, and committing to continually recognizing and reinforcing them.
Investing the time and attention required to design strong company core values delivers worthwhile results in the form of an elevated culture, which functions as a very real competitive advantage, and the best company core values will exert their influence in all corners of your company for many years to come.
Katerina Mery is a Marketing Specialist at Fond with a background in cognitive psychology and a passion for improving the way people live and work. She especially enjoys learning about how to accomplish this through rewards and recognition. In her spare time, you can find Katerina running outside, admiring art, and exploring the latest and greatest local restaurants.