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Knowing Your Values

What are company values? I’m sure if you ask a hundred employees, you’ll get a hundred creative and clever words or phrases. Companies tout their values on their websites, on posters throughout their offices, and on tee-shirts and tchotchkes handed out to employees and customers. In a business context (and in life), values are the principles or beliefs that you stand for. They guide your company in conducting its business. They’re how you do what you do.

So when business leaders set out to define their company’s values, it’s very important that they have a very clear and honest picture of the company’s mission. In other words, what is it that the company exists to do? While that should go without saying, all too often companies define their values not based on the business they’re in, but on what sounds nice to the public, or even employees.

For example, how many times have you heard companies define their values as “fun,” or “quirky,” or even the overused and hollow “innovative?” Those all sound nice, and they may even get your employees excited and attract some great candidates, but what happens when you need to make a big decision? Unless your business is an amusement park, I don’t know that “fun” is going to guide you through a company-wide restructuring, or a change to your customer service policies, or in dealing with a difficult employee. You’ll lose a lot of trust and credibility and gain a lot of cynicism from those who’ll view your actions as misaligned with the values you’ve been touting.

Defining meaningful company values requires honesty and courage, so when determining what your company will stand for, remember a few simple things:

Values are not perks. A pool table and free food are nice to have, but they’re not values. People don’t come to work for your company because of the lavish perks. Well, some do, but I’d venture to guess that most would rather work for a company that empowers its people and invests in their professional development. Perks can be a product of doing good, values-aligned work, but they’re not what drive your business.

Values are what you put your money behind. Remember when I said that you need to know what business you’re in? That means if your mission is to provide economic opportunity for small businesses, then your values should speak to how you’re going to serve your customers’ needs. Whether it’s constant improvement, big ideas, or risk-taking, if you’re not willing to dedicate your money, time, and resources to it, then it’s not a value that drives your business.

Values are brave. Nobody said values have to be warm and fuzzy. Often, companies need to make tough decisions. Don’t be afraid to commit to values that are based on integrity and accountability, to help ground your decision and direct you to do what you need to do.

Keep in mind that everyone comes into an organization with their own personal values, but when working together towards a shared mission, it’s extremely important that everyone is aligned around the same set of organizational values. That’s why, whatever your organization’s values are, the most important thing is to clearly articulate them and make sure that they are modeled by everyone in the organization, from the senior-most leader down to the most junior employee. Otherwise, your values are nothing more than words on a wall.

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