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In my coaching work, I recommend exploring your personal core values quite early on.
Not only do you gain clarity on what is really important to you, but you also make sure that your goals are aligned with both your core values and the company core values of where you work.
Such an alignment leads to:
It’s important to note that each and every one of us has a different set of core values.
Let’s discuss what core values are and why they’re important. We’ll look at how to identify your own core values and some real-world examples. Then, we’ll explore what company core values are and how to identify them.
What are core values?
Core values are what drives us, what motivates us. It can be helpful to think of them as our North Star. Our guiding light to excellence. They help us navigate through difficult times and important decisions.
Core values represent what's most important to us. They're principles that we adhere to in life: our personal code of conduct. Values aren't chosen. They're intrinsic to who we are and are as unique as our fingerprints.
If you’re looking to discover your personal core values, I recommend following the steps outlined in this image:
What are company core values and why are they important?
I like to think of a company as a group of people working towards a shared mission and goal. Let’s think of a company as an ecosystem of its own.
By extrapolation, it makes sense for a company to have its own set of core values. They guide crucial actions and behaviors, such as how business decisions are made and successful relationships are formed.
Core values are therefore visible in every aspect of the company. From operations, sales, and marketing to internal HR processes. Core values are also an important pillar of an organization's culture.
Best company core values by category
Here are some examples of company values to give you inspiration for writing your own:
- Personal responsibility
- Hard work
3. Building a better world
- Social responsibility
- Social justice
4. People at the core
- Mutual respect
- Human (and animal) rights
Finally, whatever your company's core values are, remember that you'll need to review them periodically. This is to confirm an alignment between stated core values and actions and behaviors.
What are corporate core values?
The concept of corporate core values (also referred to as company values) was first formally introduced in corporate America in 1994 in the book “Built to Last” by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras.
The book made the case that many of the best companies adhered to a set of principles called core values.
As a consequence, a buzzing trend started for each corporation to jump on the core values bandwagon.
If we look back over the past decades, people have often conflated core values and aspirational values. But these are actually distinct and separate ideas.
Let’s take a look at both.
Company core values
As mentioned above, core values are guiding principles and fundamental beliefs. They help a group of people function together as a team and work towards a common business goal. They guide all of a company’s actions.
Collins and Porras succinctly define corporate core values as:
“Being inherent and sacrosanct; they can never be compromised, either for convenience or short-term economic gain. Corporate core values may reflect the values of the company’s founders.”
Aspirational values are those that a company needs to achieve business goals but currently lacks.
For example, a company may need to develop a new aspirational value to support a new strategy, launch in a new market, or satisfy new regulatory requirements.
In growth-driven environments, one may be working on the future state or vision as their main focus. Aspirational values can then feel very present. And while they are important to drive and support business goals, they aren't the same as core values.
A key question to distinguish a core value and aspirational value is this:
Is the company as an ecosystem already exhibiting this behavior or adhering to this principle?
If yes, the value is a core value. If not, it is an aspirational value.
When aspirational values are used in lieu of core values, it could alienate the people in the company. They may feel like the value isn't present in their work. Very quickly, they feel that they don’t belong anymore.
Why are corporate core values crucial?
From a business perspective, having a set of core company values has several benefits.
It makes it easier for a company to:
- Make decisions
- Communicate principles to clients, partners, and stakeholders
- Hire employees with the right attitude and as many shared values as possible
Many organizations have designed a Corporate Code of Conduct. One of the first elements included is usually a statement about the values of the organization.
It’s with a shared code that you're able to function as a group.
Are there negative core values?
To respond to this question, we need to understand the difference between beliefs and values.
(they transcend contexts)
Assumptions held to be true
What's important to us
Arise from past experiences and situations we faced
Relate to our needs
When we use our beliefs to make decisions, we are assuming the causal relationships of the past, which led to the belief, will also apply in the future.
When we use our values to make decisions, we focus on what is important to us — what we need to feel a sense of well-being and belonging.
Most people have positive beliefs (i.e., “I'm compassionate”).
And most people have some negative beliefs, too (i.e., “I don’t fit in anywhere” or “I'm unworthy of X”). These are often called limiting beliefs.
A confusion between values and beliefs is possible as they rely on fundamental beliefs.
If we think of core values as the bedrock of our personal code of conduct, then they’d typically be positive or neutral.
Company core values examples
Let’s take a look at five real-life examples of companies and their core values:
Netflix has a core philosophy of ‘people over process.’ They define their corporate values as:
There are a couple of things that I really like about Netflix’s approach. First, they dive deep into what each value means to them. This is crucial.
For example, they define the value of communication as:
- You're concise and articulate in speech and writing.
- You listen well and seek to understand before reacting.
- You maintain calm poise in stressful situations to draw out the clearest thinking.
- You adapt your communication style to work well with people from around the world who may not share your native language.
- You provide candid, helpful, and timely feedback to colleagues.
Secondly, their Corporate Culture page doesn't stop at values.
They talk about their vision of a dream team. And they also outline key cultural cornerstones for their ecosystem, such as informed captains, the importance of disagreeing openly, freedom, and responsibility.
Apple values easy access to what they stand for as a company and lists their company values on the footer of every page of their website. These are:
- Inclusion and diversity
- Supplier responsibility
They define what each core value means to them and how their current corporate actions express these values.
They also draw a line between their corporate and aspirational values. For example, for their core value environment, they say:
We’re carbon neutral.
(What the core value ‘environment’ means)
And by 2030, every product you love will be, too. How it’s designed. How it’s made. How it’s shipped. How it’s used. How it’s recycled. Apple has a plan.
(How they link their core value to an aspirational value)
Google came up with “Ten things we know to be true” to address their corporate values statement.
They didn't choose words to define them but an actual sentence instead.
This really speaks to the point that there aren’t set rules to create corporate values. What’s important is that they truly mean something to the group of people that stand by them.
Their strong company values are:
- Focus on the user, and all else will follow.
- It’s best to do one thing really, really well.
- Fast is better than slow.
- Democracy on the web works.
- You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer.
- You can make money without doing evil.
- There’s always more information out there.
- The need for information crosses all borders.
- You can be serious without a suit.
- Great just isn’t good enough.
I appreciate how Google openly states that they revisit their corporate core values from time to time to check if they still hold true. It’s such an important point.
Not only does there need to be a conscious process to define common core values (Either personal or corporate).
It’s also important to review them on a regular basis to make sure that they still resonate and that you're still standing by them, especially as your company grows.
4. Ben & Jerry’s
The world-famous ice cream brand states that they're guided by their core values and seek in all they do at every level of business to:
- Advance human rights and dignity
- Support social and economic justice for historically marginalized communities
- Protect and restore the Earth's natural systems
And here again, each of these core values is defined with clarity.
In addition to their core values, Ben & Jerry’s also defines progressive values. These are concerns that they integrate into their leadership and day-to-day business activities.
Adidas core values, known as the 3Cs, are defined as a set of behaviors at the core of their company culture and that they want to see in their people.
Their core values are:
How to identify your company’s core values (a step-by-step guide)
It's never too late to define a company’s core values. The process may differ slightly depending on whether you are an early-stage start-up or an international company.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to defining your company’s core values:
1. Assign who is in charge
Define who is leading this process in your company. Is it one individual or a group of individuals?
Agree on how accountability will be kept, making sure that the focus is steadily kept on core values and not aspirational values. It seems trivial, but it’s hard to detach from what we want to achieve when we're constantly in it as part of our day-to-day life.
2. Get everyone on board
Get commitment from the executive leadership team, C-suite, or co-founders. Why is it important for them to have core values? What difference will it create?
Speak individually with the executive leadership team, C-suite, or co-founders. How do they work together? What's important for them?
3. Get inspired
Find companies that inspire you from within your industry and beyond. What are their core values?
Make sure to take the time to read their detailed description of each of their core values. Write down what resonates the most and why it resonates.
4. Take input
Once you think you have a draft of core values, survey the people in your organization and ask for feedback.
5. Make it clear
Once you have a set of values, take time to concisely and intentionally articulate what they mean for the organization. Be prepared that this step can take time and several iterations.
6. Get internal feedback
Present the core values internally and organize a Q&A. It's important to surface any concerns.
7. Create a new corporate culture
The work doesn’t end when you articulate the values: you need to embed them in the company to make sure they succeed.
Each process in the organization must be aligned with the core values.
How can you make sure everyone in the company will remember the values and live by them? Be creative. Some companies organize challenges and prizes to get the momentum going. See our list of fun corporate activities for inspiration.
Create your own set of company core values
A good set of core values helps us to make important decisions. They act as a guiding light in times of difficulty or confusion.
In a corporate setting, they’re crucial for making decisions, as well as for companies to communicate their principles to employees, clients, and stakeholders.
If you need help with establishing your own set of core values, BetterUp can help.
Request a customized demo and see how we can help to foster a better organizational culture.
Fiorenza works with global leaders and emerging leaders to maximize their impact in their leadership journey. Fiorenza specializes in periods of career transitions and supports the development of resilience, agile leadership skills, communication skills across cultures, and healthy work-life balance. Fiorenza is also a global facilitator, podcast host, mindfulness teacher, and MBTI practitioner.
Fiorenza is multicultural and multilingual in French, English, and Italian, and works in the 3 languages. She currently lives in London, England. She co-hosts The Belonging Project podcast which explores how belonging can show up in so many different ways, what it feels like to belong and the impact of truly belonging.