These are the documented values of one of the most well-known companies in history. And they sound pretty great, right? Who wouldn’t want to work in a place that holds these values among its core principles?
Because these are the values of Enron, the American energy company that declared bankruptcy in 2001 after revelations of intentional, epidemic accounting fraud, resulting in indictments and imprisonments for top officials and the loss of billions of dollars in pensions and stocks for employees.
Why values matter
Every large company has a set of values that they throw up on their website and print in their annual report. Too often they are a collection of meaningless buzzwords that represent a stark departure from the everyday reality that exists behind closed doors.
It’s too bad, because meaningful values should be more than something you just…do. There are a bunch of incredible benefits to knowing what your values are and making them a part of the fabric of your organization. In fact, your organization’s core values serve as a roadmap that helps you:
- Shape your culture
- Find the best people to do work with, from employees to vendors to strategic partners
- Make big decisions, determining what to say yes to and when to take a pass
- Figure out how to respond when things go wrong
When a company knows what their values are and threads those through the way they do business on a day-to-day basis, it helps them navigate stormy seas and maximize golden opportunities. Put another way, if you want to be successful as an organization – you’ve simply got to know what your core values are.
How do you know if you have the right values?
Your core values will be effective for you when they are an accurate representation of who your organization is at its heart. What is the collection of characteristics that if you eliminated one from the list, it would fundamentally change the fabric of your organization?
Here are a few things that core values aren’t:
- Aspirational. We’re not talking about things you wish your organization could be one day, but the things that you hold dear today. Let’s say there’s an organization that as a general rule has a hard time sticking to deadlines. There is a culture of consistently running five minutes late to meetings and 2-3 days late with project deadlines. If they named “accountability” as a value, this shows wishful thinking rather than a true reflection of what they hold as important above all else. In an organization where accountability is truly held as a core value, things don’t run late.
- Permission-to-play. There are some things that lie at the core of every strong organization. These are things that we should expect from one another. They’re not distinct values that make your organization special. Integrity. Honesty. Respect. Unless your organization goes far beyond a basic level of human decency in these areas, these are permission-to-play values, not core values.
- Easy to determine. It’s not a case of just picking a bunch of nice-sounding words from a list of values that you found on Google and throwing them in your strategic plan. Deciding your core values should come with some struggle and disagreement – and an investment of time. It’s worth it. These are the things that are going to shape how success is defined at your organization; who gets hired and fired; and what gets celebrated. If you pick too quickly, you’ll soon discover they’re not worth the paper they’re typed on.
How to develop meaningful core values
Schedule a half-day meeting with members of your team, and gather together in a room with a whiteboard, a bunch of post-it notes, colorful pens and plenty of snacks.
Step One: Who is your work for?
Start off by determining who the groups of people are that you work for and with on a daily basis. Likely, there will be a few. Depending on your work, they might include:
- Strategic partners
- Board of Directors
- Service users
Step Two: What does success feel like for our people?
Once you’ve identified the relevant groups for you, answer this question: “When we are achieving our goals, what is the experience like for these people? What are the traits and behaviors they can expect from our organization?” (Assuming you’ve already spent time developing your purpose and mission, you should have a good idea of what your goals are.)
Brainstorm the answer to this question, and write each word that comes up on an individual post-it note so that you have one idea per post-it.
For example, perhaps you determine that when you’re being successful, your clients have trust in your product, or that your Board of Directors talk passionately about the work that you do.
Step Three: Finding common themes
As a group, take the post-its and put them all on the wall, and then group similar ideas together. If you put “efficiency” and also “doing things smarter”, perhaps those get grouped together. Maybe you would put “kindness” and “compassion” together.
A big word of warning here: don’t over-group your post-its. If something stands out as distinct, it’s okay to put it in a group on its own. The goal is not to come up with a small number of groupings, but to distill all the ideas into themes for further discussion. If you throw a bunch of ideas together at this stage, you risk losing an important concept.
Step Four: Choosing the top options
Once you have groups you’re happy with, come up with a label or title for each group – it doesn’t matter how many groupings you have.
As a group, decide which 5-7 are the most representative of who your organization is at its core. You could do this through group discussion, voting, or scoring. Whatever method feels right for you!
Step Five: Let’s test them out
Once you have your 5-7 values for consideration, now individually complete this matrix by answering the seven questions with a “yes” or “no” for each of the proposed values.
If you write “no” in any of the boxes, it doesn’t mean that value doesn’t make the cut. But it does warrant discussion, so have everyone in your group share their answers and talk about what they mean to you. Does this activity impact what you think your core values might be?
Step Six: Now let’s get the words right
By now, you should have a list of no more than 5 core values. Anywhere between 3 and 5 is ideal – more than that are hard to memorize, and your core values should be easy to call to mind and recite at any time.
This is where the word-smithing comes in. Writing as a group is seldom fun or productive, so identify a couple of writers in your group to develop the first draft to share with the group.
You won’t necessarily develop the perfect set of values out of one session. It takes time, contemplation and reflection. Once you have a draft list of values, try them out for a few weeks. Refer back to them in group meetings and discuss whether you think they’re working for you.
In the meantime, here are 190 company values to help get you inspired.