What to look out for when building your company’s core values?

You’ve got your startup on the ground and now you are looking to firm the team up and build the structure. But wait, you have to set your mission, vision and core values.

Building alignment within a team can be one of the biggest challenges for any leader. The beauty of humanity is such that we have a range of different approaches to solving the challenges in front of us. In small groups, we can achieve a common sense of direction and culture simply through the act of proximity. Teams that work closely together have a greater likelihood of converging on a common set of norms than teams that are more dispersed.

When an organization grows, however, this alignment by osmosis begins to dilute. With more people comes more perspectives, newer ways of thinking and a melting pot of cultural approaches. While it’s important to hire for and embrace a diversity of thought in your organization it’s also imperative to define and communicate what it truly means to work and succeed there.

Building a common set of core values sets you apart in the marketplace, it demonstrates what makes it great to work for you and it can help guide your people when they’re faced with a tough decision. So before you jump in, be wary of the following pitfalls that might lead you to a sub standard core value set.

1. They are too strongly tied to the founder.
In highly entrepreneurial, values-driven organizations, the core values are usually an outward representation of the founder’s philosophy of life. “Move fast and break things’ was an entirely Zuckerbergian motto, ‘Always be hustlin” was Travis Kalanick’s battle cry and ‘We are going for it and we will set aggressive goals’ was right out of Steve Jobs’ ‘reality distortion field.’

Defining your values purely as extensions of the founder can be problematic. It provides an unwarranted final say in the hands of the founder. From their perspective. If the company is supposed to think, act and behave like me. Then whatever I think, say or do is de facto the right thing for the business.

Rather than define your values based solely on the philosophies of the founder, take an objective viewpoint on what it really looks like to succeed at your organization. Take perspectives from legacy and new employees and build a set of values that are unique to your organization, not one person.

2. They are used as an excuse for bad behavior.
An extension of the point above is the use of values to excuse bad behavior. Values are like anything else in life. Push them to the extreme and they start to break, they begin to flip over to the dark side. So ‘Seek excellence’ becomes ‘Work every last minute until it’s perfect’. ‘Push for the best solution’ becomes ‘Question everything to the point were your people wonder why they even bother if you’re just going to criticize it anyway.’ ‘Be brutally honest’ becomes ‘Abandon any notion of the fact that people have feelings and beat down on them repeatedly.’

Core values are not an excuse to be a jerk. Don’t hide behind them.

Instead, clearly define what good looks like for each value but also take the time to identify the dark side of each value. What does it look like when it’s being pushed to its limit? What behaviors should you seek to avoid?

3. They overlook contradictions.
Take a moment and scan down your core values. Or if you don’t have any, Google your favorite company and review those. Ask yourself what it would look like to live those at all times. What you’re likely to conjure up is a picture of a pretty incredible person. Most value lists stretch us to be better versions of themselves. The problem is that it’s hard to exhibit all of them all the time. In most cases, you’ll find that there are contradictory statements. How can you strive for quality while moving fast or serve the customer while looking for efficiencies?

Instead of just listing out your values, draw out where there is inherent tension and how that tension might be best solved. Give your people guidance on how to best exhibit your values and how to use them as a North Star for decision making.

Your core values can set you apart as an organization for good or bad. Put in the work to make sure they’re used in a positive way.

Check out my related post: What are the 5 most important questions to ask for an organisation? – Part 2

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