As a leader of your enterprise, this process begins with you—your interest, passion, and commitment to establishing a set of values that will guide your culture through decades of growth.

Taking the time to define your values, embody them, and keep them fresh and alive in everyone’s minds are some of the most vital things you can do to promote a thriving culture.

Arriving at a concise and short list of values can be a daunting task. You can find lists of 300 values to choose from. However, we don’t advise using any predetermined lists.

Why? Values aren’t selected; they are discovered. Freely associating in a brainstorming session with your employees will invariably yield superior results.

Ready to get started? Here are seven steps to creating distinct and meaningful core values that will serve as a foundation for your corporate culture:

Step 1: Begin with a Beginner’s Mind

It’s too easy to presume we know the answer at the start and to therefore never truly embark on a creative discovery process. Adopting the mind of a beginner—someone without any preconceived notions of what is—gives you access to more ideas and a fresh perspective on your business.

This is an important step in any kind of discovery process. In our firm, every time we begin a new creative project or the discovery of psychologically-driven consumer insights for clients, we always start with a Beginner’s Mind.

We believe it is imperative to approach the discovery of core values without any preconceived notions and beliefs about your culture and your business. Simply taking a deep breath and momentarily clearing your mind may be all that’s needed. Remembering that your conscious mind doesn’t know all of the answers is helpful too.

Step 2: Create your own master list of internal values.

The more experienced and engaged employees you can enroll in this initial process, the better. Set up a meeting with your leadership team first. Have everyone list what they believe to be your company’s imperatives, ideal behaviors, desired skills, and greatest strengths.

Ask:

  • What do you believe defines the culture at [company]?
  • What values do you bring to your work that you consistently uphold whether or not they are rewarded?
  • What do you truly stand for in your work? What do you believe [company] truly stands for?
  • What do our customers believe about us? What do they believe we stand for?
  • What values does our company consistently adhere to in the face of obstacles?
  • What are our company’s greatest strengths?
  • What are the top three to five most important behaviors we should expect from every employee (including you)? “Actual company values are the behaviors and skills that are valued in fellow employees,” explains Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.

Your goal is to discover the pre-existing values within your organization (assuming you’re not an early-stage start-up). It will be difficult to reinforce values that aren’t already part of your organization’s ethos. It’s best to highlight your organization’s current strengths and build on them.

While some companies hire an outside consultant to help uncover their core values (which is appropriate at times), it is vital that you as a leader are playing a role in facilitating the discussion. Your employees need to see that you’re taking this process seriously and that it’s not just some “corporate agenda” for appearance purposes. If you don’t take this process seriously, it’s unlikely your employees will.

If you are going to lead the discussion, however, be sure that you’re not shaping the conversation or influencing people’s answers.

Step 3: Chunk your values into related groups.

Combining all of the answers from step 2, you now have a master list of values. If you and your team took this process seriously, you may have between 25 and 75 values. Obviously, that’s far too many to be actionable and memorable.

Your next step is to group these values under related themes. Values like accountability, responsibility, and timeliness are all related. Group them together.

Step 4: Highlight the central theme of each value group.

If you have a group of values that include honesty, transparency, integrity, candor, directness, and non-political, select a word that you feel best represents the group. For example, integrity might work as a central theme for the values listed above.

This process is best done with a small team, but this brainstorming session can be an open meeting as well.

Step 5: Sacrifice and Focus.

Now comes the hardest part. After completing step 4 you still might have a sizable list of values. Here are a few questions to help you whittle your list down:

  • What values are absolutely essential to your work environment?
  • What values represent the primary behaviors your organization wants to encourage and stand by?
  • What values are essential to supporting your unique culture?

You can’t be all things to all people. Your culture is unique. It should emphasize what matters most to your collective. It should highlight what makes your organization a place that talented people want to work. It should represent both your current and the ultimate expression of your culture.

Strong values require difficult decisions to be made in order to uphold the values. Avoid prosaic or generic values (often listed in a single word, like “accountability”) because they won’t establish a strong, distinct culture.

How many core values should your organization adopt? Too few and you won’t capture all of the desired behaviors and unique dimensions of your organization. Too many and your employees will get overwhelmed and they will lose their overall impact. While the number of core values differs for each organization, the magic range seems to be between 5 and 10.

Step 6: Craft Your Company’s List of Core Values.

Now creativity really comes into play. You’ll notice in the core values examples from successful brands that none of them list their values in a single word like Integrity, Accountability, or Fun. While a one-word value might be easier to remember, it is difficult for a single word to become a distinct expression of your culture. More importantly, it is incredibly difficult for a single-word value to trigger an emotional response in your employees.

Highlighting values in memorable phrases or sentences forces your organization to define the meaning behind each value. It gives you the opportunity to make the value more memorable in the minds of your employees.

Be sure to enroll at least one strong writer from your team in this stage of the process. Here are a few tips and guidelines for crafting your values:

  • Use inspiring words and vocabulary. Our brains are quick to delete or ignore the mundane and commonplace. A phrase like “Customer Service Excellence” is not going to inspire you or your employees. Zappos’ “Deliver WOW Through Service” just might.
  • Mine for words that evoke emotion. Words and phrases that trigger emotional responses will be more meaningful and memorable in the minds of your employees.
  • Focus on your organization’s strengths. It’s fitting that a company like IDEO would promote principles like “Encourage Wild Ideas” and “Build on the ideas of others.” Play to your strengths in crafting your values.
  • Make it meaningful. Slogans and taglines are not core values. Make your value statements rich and meaningful to your employees.

Step 7: Test the Ecology of Each Value.

Once you’ve finalized your list of core values, it’s time to test.

Here’s a quick checklist to test the integrity of your new core values:

  1. Will each value help you make decisions (especially the difficult ones)?
  2. Are your core values memorable? Will every team member be able to encode them in their minds?
  3. Does each value represent distinct elements of your overall culture?
  4. Does each value speak to at least one desired behavior?
  5. Will you be willing to uphold these values 50 years from now?
  6. Are your values congruent with the behavior of your leadership team? Are these values BS-tested? Will an employee be able to observe hypocrisy?
  7. Can your organization hold up these values in stressful and difficult situations (like increased competition, product recall, stock devaluation, or downsizing)?
  8. Are you willing to defend these values unequivocally? That is, does each value permeate through the entire organization?

What clients say about the Cult Branding Process

“B.J. Bueno and his team at The Cult Branding Company respect and understand what so many strategists miss: before we can be experts on the product, sales, or the market, we must first be experts on human nature. They have a proven track record of building healthy, sustainable businesses for some of the best brands in the world―using the very process outlined in this book.”

―Bert Jacobs, chief executive optimist, The Life is good Company

To learn more about how we help leaders like you achieve amazing results click here.

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