The definition of a secret weapon is, “A thing or person which we believe will help us achieve something which other people do not know about.” A football team can have one; movies can have one; companies can have one.
I believe every company and organization can build a secret weapon that catapults them ahead of others. That is core values.
1.) Every company has values, whether they are articulated or not.
Want to know what your company’s values are? Walk around the office for a week (or, in this season, be an audio-only participant on Zoom calls). Be a fly on the wall, and you’ll find out pretty quickly if integrity is a value, for example. The same goes for hospitality, authenticity, generosity, or any number of potential values.
This question, “What’s the real value?” was the premise of the old show, Undercover Boss, where, in one episode, an NFL star discovered the strong sense of urgency and work ethic that pervaded the back room of the sports bar he co-owned.
2.) Your core values are what you believe, what you allow, and how you behave.
Your core values make up the framework of your daily decisions. Each department of your organization is run through that lens: who you hire and fire, what you train for, how you review and reward employees, etc.
It doesn’t only affect people, though; it’s strategy, too. Your values guide your most difficult decisions and help you filter opportunities that come your way throughout the year. Hard budget decisions and questions of mergers and acquisitions all run through the values framework.
Roy E. Disney once said, “When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.” Our core values help to make up the DNA of the company.
3.) Core values are a set of words, phrases, or images that describe what it looks like to work in a particular company.
Let’s start at a basic level. What are values? They’re words, phrases, or images that paint a picture of life inside the company. I was on a call today interviewing a potential CMO for one of the companies I co-own. The candidate asked me a really good question. She said, “What’s it like to be inside the walls of the company? In other words, can you tell me in words or images what it is like to be a part of your company?”
4.) When it comes to values, less is more.
It’s best to keep your number of core values between three and seven. Brainstorming your values makes it tempting to include everything that’s important to you. You know all the ins and outs of your company, you know what has guided the company through past storms, and so it’s hard to leave any out, and the list grows. But if you don’t prioritize, in time, your employees will. When they have fifteen values they’re trying to uphold, over time, only a few will make the cut. Limit yourself to three to seven.
At this point in the process, it can be helpful to hear some outside perspective. Alternatively, employ one of the many tools out there that were created to aid in the process of constructing core values. Just as importantly, recognize the things to avoid.
5.) Articulating values is 10% of the work. Institutionalizing is 90%.
Putting a list of values on the company website’s landing page or “About” page is a good step, but it’s just a first step. The next step is to think through the different layers of the company or organization. Who needs to know these values? Everyone. How will you go about communicating them? And even more difficultly, how will you go about practicing them? I’ve written about this elsewhere using Chick-fil-A as an example. For years, I have said that people only implement what they understand and believe in.
6.) Institutionalized values are a powerful asset for any company.
Great values lead to great culture; great culture attracts great people; great people do great things. In other words, great values are like a couple of extra zeroes in your bank account. Companies that have the reputation of having a great culture (think: Google over the past fifteen years) attract more and more top employees because the best employees are after more than just a paycheck. They want to be a part of a fulfilling culture. That’s why top companies—and superior potential employees—discuss values during the interview process, to keep them alive for all time.
Comedian Jon Stewart said, “If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values: they’re hobbies.” They’re treated as toys or trinkets that can be held onto or cast off on a whim. Instead, create, build, and unleash the power of true core values in your organization.