How to Define Your Core Values as a Company

By September 18, 2018Leadership

Core values can be defined as fundamental beliefs. In an organization, these fundamental beliefs bring employees together, guide the actions of the organization, and define its brand as a product or service provider and as an organization. Successful leaders are driven by these core values; they incorporate them into their professional relationships, decisions, and communication.

If you don’t have core values yet, don’t worry. Today is a great time to start defining who you are as an organization. How you define your core values will depend on whether you’re a start-up or are an established company with established employees. We’ll walk you through both scenarios so you can start using your core values to guide your company, vision, and team.

How to Define Your Core Values as a CompanyCore Values for Start-Ups

Start-ups get the pleasure of building their organization with intention by establishing core values early in the game and basing them on their dreams and hopes for the company. If you’re in a start-up and already defining your core values, congratulations. You’re taking the most important steps toward building a successful business.

If nailing down your core values is currently on your to-do list, then here’s what you need to do:

1. Start With a List of Values

Start with a list of potential core values like the free example found here. At first glance, begin crossing out all of the core values that don’t speak to you. Keep in mind that you probably aren’t going to feel opposed to any of the values, but if they don’t speak directly to you and describe your business model and hopes, cross them off.

During this process, the goal is to get the list down to about fifty core values.

2. Explore Your Why

Take some time to get to the heart of your business – its core – by asking yourself these questions:

  • Why did I launch this business?
  • What is my promise to my clients?
  • What is my promise to my staff?
  • What is the most important attribute I have in mind when screening candidates for employment?
  • What sets me apart from others in my industry?
  • What change do I hope to produce in the world?
  • What are our moral obligations as a company?
  • What are our non-negotiables? What would cause us to fire an employee or client without warning?
  • What are my immediate, short-term, and long-term goals?
  • If the sky was the limit, what would this business become?

Write down the answers to each of these questions. Once you have the answers, use them to reflect back on your list of approximately fifty core values. At this point, you should narrow the list down to just four to ten core values that accurately encompass your business’ purpose in the world and its commitment to employees, clients, and communities.

3. Add Your Commitment Statements

Many start-ups outsource this step to a copywriter or marketing agency, but you can draft your statements yourself if you prefer. Your “commitment statements” should be brief statements that summarize your commitment to each core value. For example, if your core value is innovation, your commitment statement might be, “We promise to never stop learning, exploring, and investing in new technology to make our clients’ lives easier and more fulfilling.”

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Core Values for Established Organizations

Established organizations are able to approach the exercise of defining core values a little differently. Rather than looking at hopes and dreams, they can evaluate reality in combination with their aspirations for the future. Likewise, they can bring together diverse viewpoints from people who have experience in their organization to create a multi-dimensional list that takes into consideration perspectives from different age groups, roles, cultures, and levels within the organization.

If you have never created a list of core values or want to revisit them, here is what you need to do:

1. Form an Interdisciplinary Team

The first step is to establish the team who will define your core values. There are a couple of ways you can do this:

  1. You can hand-select team members based on what you know about your staff and who you believe will add the most value and contribute to the group’s diversity. This strategy works best in smaller companies when the founder or another leader knows all employees well.
  2. You can ask each department to nominate one employee to be a part of the team and outline your expectations for that employee. You might want an employee who lives the company mission or whom the team admires, for example. The employee will have to be willing to attend three meetings lasting an hour each in order to participate.

Some organizations choose to exclusively have their leaders form the team that develops their core values, but this can leave out the perspectives of the majority of staff: those in non-leadership roles. Having a few leaders present is important, but having only leaders precludes the much-needed diversity on the core values team.

As a best practice, the team should be comprised of no more than ten to twelve people. This facilitates better conversation and creates an environment in which consensus can be reached.

How to Define Your Core Values as a Company2. Assign a Leader

The leader of your core values team has two responsibilities:

  1. To prepare and plan for meetings in advance.
  2. To lead each meeting in a collaborative, encouraging way.

Please note that the leader of the team does not have to be in a management role in the organization; assigning an admirable employee can improve company culture, encourage personal and professional development, and bridge the gap between management and staff.

3. Conduct the Exercise

During the exercise, each team member should be provided with a list of potential core values. A great list of over 500 core values can be found here; this list makes a great starting point, but any similar list can be used.

Start by sharing these questions with the group for consideration:

  • What is our mission and vision?
  • What do we promise our clients?
  • Why do our clients choose us? What do they love about our organization?
  • What is our promise to staff? Why do people work here?
  • What do we look for when choosing new team members? What attributes must you demonstrate in order to work here?
  • What sets us apart in our industry?
  • What change are we producing in the world through outreach and use of our resources?
  • What are our moral obligations and commitments?
  • What are our non-negotiables? What would cause us to fire an employee or client without warning?
  • What are our goals, both short- and long-term?

Keeping these questions in mind, ask each team member to share five to ten values from the list that they believe reflect the organization’s intentions, purpose, and culture. They can either share round-table style or write their list on a board for everyone to see.

Once you’ve collected suggestions, look at the board together to identify “singles” (core value listed only once on the board). Discuss each single with the group to determine whether it should be removed from the short list or stay for further consideration. Sometimes one team member may have considered something the rest have not that truly does reflect the company and belong on the short list.

How to Define Your Core Values as a CompanyNext, discuss the core values that are listed multiple times, starting with those that have the most mentions. Erase the extra mentions, and keep each value listed just once on the board. Discuss each value with the group, and determine whether it should stay on the board.

Finally, work through the remaining core values to choose the best between similar values. For example, you may have “respect,” “respect for others,” and “respect for the individual” on your list. Allow for discussion and determine which version to keep and which versions will be eliminated.

If, after all this, you still have more than four to ten core values on your list, take a vote and use tally marks to narrow it down to no more than ten total core values.

4. Add Your Commitment Statements

Like start-ups, once you’ve completed these exercises and finalized your list of core values, you can draft your commitment statements. This is usually done by the marketing department or a copywriter, if you have one on staff.

During this process, you’ll write a short statement summarizing each value and the commitment you’ve made to that core value. For example, if your core value is social responsibility, your statement might be, “We choose to use our resources to do good things for our neighbors, our communities, and our world.”

Where Will Your Core Values Take You Now?

Now, you not only have a list of your values, but you have the statements to illustrate them — and enroll others in your vision.

Whether you’re a start-up or a thriving company, your core values — once established and shared — should drive every business decision and every client interaction. Without taking the time to create these intentional values, we’re simply throwing darts at a wall. With these values established, we have a bullseye at which we can aim.

And the result? An organization that is guided, defined, and brought together by its core values.

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Becca Borawski Jenkins
Becca is a bit like a cat — she’s gone through a few “lives” to get to her current one (with which she’s quite pleased). She earned her MFA in Cinema-Television Production at USC’s famed film school, and her first career was as a music editor (if you’ve watched Scrubs, you’ve likely heard her work).

Becca found her way to career number two through martial arts. She began training in BJJ and muay Thai and started working with professional MMA fighters, building websites, working on fight promotions, and producing videos.

As a competitor in BJJ herself, Becca wanted to get stronger and fitter. In 2005, she became a student at CrossFit Los Angeles where she met WLC co-founders Andy Petranek and Michael Stanwyck. In only a couple years, she became CrossFit Level III Certified, left her entertainment career, and dedicated herself full time to coaching, serving as the Program Director of CFLA and founder of the CFLA CrossFit Kids program.

After seven years as a music editor and then eight years as fitness instructor, Becca segued to her current career — full-time editor and writer. She and her husband are full-time RVers and have a first-hand comprehension of the pros and cons of remote work.