Core Values: What Matters Most?

Real or fake?

ornamentIt’s an annual dilemma faced by everyone who celebrates Christmas. Do we go for a real tree this year, or use a fake one? There are strong arguments for both camps and in my house the winner varies from year to year.

Regardless of the choice (this year, it’s real) the sentiment is the same: our tree become the center of our holiday household, shining brightly as an expression of our values and beliefs.

A similar scenario plays out in board rooms and executive suites on a regular basis. The argument here is not about the best tree, but about how to express what matters to the company. The debate about “core values” tends to surface when it’s time to revisit strategy, especially when an organization decides to dust of its vision and mission statement.

Core values become a list of things that do (or should) guide decisions at the company. Unfortunately, they often end up like a poorly-made fake tree: stuffed in a corner from season to season, forgotten and unused.

A sign on the wall proclaiming corporate core values that everyone walks by, but never reads, is a symptom that sincerity is lacking.

Core values aren’t about words, they’re a reflection of attitudes, a mirror of what matters most to an organization. Taking the time to create a poster, engrave them on a plaque or print value statements on the back of business cards is not the goal. No matter how they are promoted, employees won’t buy into core value unless leadership lives by them.

Instead  of exquisitely crafted wording to show the world you care (“We value every employee.” “Customers always come first.”) take a look in the mirror. What  values does your organization embody, day in and day out? What rules do you live by in terms of how people are treated and how business gets done?

These are your real core values, and sometimes, they’re not pretty. People aren’t perfect, after all.

This is why many organizations choose aspirational values. They want to inspire people to try harder, aim higher, do better. And that’s OK.

The trick is to the be sure that the desired change is modeled for employees, starting from the top. If you truly value things like honesty, integrity or compassion, these principles will shine brightly in the actions of leaders, managers and staff.

Look around.

Is there an outdated value statement hidden in plain sight? Is it time to revisit what you say vs. what you do?

If so, here are a few questions to ask:

  • What values drive our business decisions?
  • How do we behave when the going gets tough?
  • What’s non-negotiable for us in terms of the way we do business?
  • What rules and expectations can we honestly live by?
  • What higher plane can we reach?

Be realistic and honest. Use your value statements to reflect the reality of your organization and its corporate persona as well as what you hope to be.

Integrate these values into everything you do. Don’t stuff them into a corner or closet, bring them out, use them and make them part of your corporate culture. Discuss them in meetings. Benchmark against them. Check progress regularly.

When you treat core values as a living representation of the organization, they’ll help you realize the full power of your corporate vision.

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