Your company’s core values serve as a touchpoint to help your team understand what matters most and why. Your values already exist within your company, but left undefined leaves each individual to try and interpret them on their own. This is fine in the early days and can become a mess as more people join.
And so, defining your values is largely an exercise in making the implicit explicit. You’re seeking to put words and/or images to the must-haves in how you and your team behave. By making your must-haves explicit, you create a common foundation on which everyone operates. Teams that do this well are more connected, more effective, and stay together longer.
This makes defining your core values perhaps the highest leverage project that you can undertake.
While there are many approaches you can take to defining your company’s core values, there are four components that can make the process less intense, more straightforward, and maybe even a bit fun.
1. Prototyping > Getting it Done
There’s a tendency to want to get your values defined and delivered to the team ASAP so you can reap the benefits and get back to work. This might work for some people, but is needlessly high-risk.
Instead, treat your first draft of your core values as nothing more than a prototype. And like any good prototype, there’s a chance it’ll work and get built out. And there’s also a chance it’ll get thrown in the trash can. Both results are valuable.
Prototyping is learning your way forward, what’s most important is getting the learning started.
Start exclusively with a small, committed team. This is usually your leadership team, but that’s not a rule. What matters most is that you involve people who care about your company culture and are willing to put in the effort to craft a first draft of your values.
Rather than jumping straight into “values” which can get a bit heady, create 3-5 agreements within the prototyping team on how you will work with each other. These need to be things that each person is both willing to commit to and willing to be held accountable on.
Spend the next one or two weeks leaning into absolute accountability around those agreements. As much as possible, have in-the-moment discussions on what you’re learning. Statements like “I’m really struggling with…” or “I notice that X feels really good and empowering.” are powerful observations that the team can learn from.
Then the next time your team meets, iterate as needed by solidifying agreements, crafting new ones, or starting from scratch.
The benefits of this prototyping approach are that not only are you practicing your culture into existence, but you’re also avoiding the need to roll something out sooner than necessarily.
2. Top Down + Bottom Up
Through prototyping, you’re already taking a top-down approach to defining your company’s core values. Adding in a bottom-up approach creates a richer landscape to explore by tapping into your team’s experiences and perspectives.
To do so, leaders can gather input from the entire team – via surveys, focus groups, and/or conversations – to unearth the stories and behaviors that best define you.
The bottom-up approach is not only likely uncover new insights and blindspots, but also powerful for getting team buy-in on the core values definition process. For this, err on the side of involving everyone (surveys make this easy) to ensure everyone has voice in the values process.
A few of my favorite lines of questioning:
- What 2-3 people in our team, if you could clone them, would be most impactful to our success? What are their characteristics that make this true?
- What makes the way we work special? What is 1 or 2 memorable or impactful stories that illustrate this?
- What is it that makes you excited to come to work everyday?
- If you could choose 3 words to describe our team, what would they be?
Going bottom up can be a bit of a fire hose of information, but embrace the chaos and keep an eye out for both patterns and interesting outliers. You can discover much from each.
3. Make it Uniquely Yours
After prototyping and gathering input from your team, you’ll take all of that raw content and begin to group it into themes. Within your leadership team trim down to the select few themes that have energy and truth in them.
The two questions to loop through in selecting your final themes are “Is there anything redundant or unnecessary here?” and “Are we missing anything that is essential?” Combined, these create a tension to narrow and focus without neglecting a key part of your essence.
Then and only then, should you move into finding the right words, images, metaphors, or stories to bring the values to life. There’s no right way to do this other than to find what is most uniquely and powerfully yours. Tettra has published a series of culture decks that will give you a glimpse of many company’s finished values. Resist the temptation to copy. You do you.
4. Embody & Embed
Once your core values are defined, it’s time to turn up the dial on making those values alive in the day-to-day.
Focus on embodying the values in action, communicating the values in conversation, and embedding the values in the work.
Embody: Your thoughts, words, and behaviors are aligned and allow others to experience your values in action. While some conscious effort may be needed, it feels right to be this way. Others respond to your embodiment of the values with their own that allow you experience the values in action.
Communicate: Values are talked about regularly. They’re used to shape decision-making. When someone falls short in honoring a value, it isn’t swept under the rug, it’s talked about openly. This is done not to shame them, but as an ongoing culture building exercise.
Embed: Scan your companies processes and systems for opportunities to better integrate your values in the work. How you run meetings, how communication occurs, how planning is done, and hiring/onboarding are all strong places to start embedding your values.
In defining your company core values, while you’ll aim for a finished product, the work and iteration is never done. Keep exploring and building your culture — both your team and yourself will be better for it.