The Executive Brief

The Value of Core Values

Brian Lassiter Culture

This week’s post on KeyStone Search’s Culture, Leadership and Alignment Blog was kindly contributed by Brian Lassiter, President of Performance Excellence Network. Thank you to Mr. Lassiter for allowing KeyStone to share his expertise.

Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. Who knows where these powerful – and timeless – 12 words come from? Anyone who has raised his right hand with three fingers up (or has/had a son, grandson, or other family member or friend do so) will recognize them as Boy Scout Law, a timeless expression of core values for scouting. They were written in 1908, which raises two noteworthy insights: 1) they are enduring (anything that lasts for over 100 years with very little change validates its sustainability!), and 2) they are relevant and have helped millions of boys and young men (and I argue could help any leader, any person) make better decisions and live better lives. In short, they are true core values…

I was a Boy Scout, and my father before me and my son is now. So I guess I write this month’s column either from a position of authority or admitted bias. But my comments here are not about the benefits of Scouting, Boy or Girl (though I believe both are powerful programs that shape good leaders and build life skills for today’s youth). My comments here are about the value that any organization gains by having a set of well-defined, well-articulated, and fully-embraced core values in shaping workers’ behavior and decisions.

The Baldrige Framework, today’s current yardstick for organizational performance excellence, defines core values as “the guiding principles and behaviors that embody how your organization and its people are expected to operate.” Why are they important? They influence, reinforce, and – I would argue – articulate and shape an organization’s desired culture. They should be foundational in supporting and guiding any decision made by any employee within an organization, and they are critical in helping the organization to achieve its mission, attain its vision, and preserve or leverage its culture.

In short, core values should capture an organization’s personality. They reflect the phrase “it’s how we do things around here.” Core values are not marketing fluff: they should represent what’s truly important to an organization’s culture – to its fabric and what it really stands for.

In a 2013 Forbes article,Three Reasons Why Values Matter, and I’m Not Talking about the Money Kind, Gary Peterson outlines why values are important for any organization:

  • Values should dictate how organizations hire. Remember Jim Collin’s phrase “get the right people on the bus”? Well, core values should be a statement of what it takes to take a ride on that bus. As Peterson says: “Hiring the person who best fits your team is vastly more important than the technical expertise that they may bring.” In other words, hire for character, train for skills.
  • Values should reflect desired behavior. Values capture what represents “right” and what represents “wrong” behavior within an organization’s culture. Leaders should understand, shape, nurture, cultivate, and reinforce desired values – rewarding behavior that’s consistent with organizational values, and coaching and developing employees that are behaving out of synch with those values. For example, effective leaders don’t focus as much on an employee being late, but on that behavior being inconsistent with an organizational value of timeliness or resecting others.
  • Values are the heart of an organization’s culture. As Peterson explains: if you hire employees that lie, cheat, and steal, over time, the company’s culture will reflect those (negative) values. Alternatively, if you want your organization to be innovative, you need a team of smart, curious, problem solvers on staff and the best way to hire and keep smart, curious, problem solvers is to already have an office filled with smart, curious, problem solvers. Core values become the personality – the fabric – of your organization. And in many ways, having strong organizational values becomes self-sustaining and perpetually-reinforcing. Employees that don’t fit a culture, eventually are weeded out (or opt out).

If core values are consistent within an organization, workers feel unified, camaraderie and teamwork are strong, and decisions are made in harmony with culture. But if core values are not consistent, employee engagement is impacted, worker “clicks” and factions form, and decisions are unpredictable and potentially at odds with mission, vision, and desired behavior.

Our “own” Paul Grizzell, president,Core Values Partners, a Minnesota-based performance excellence consultancy, says it this way: “an organization’s values are like curbs at the side of the road – they help identify the boundaries of what is appropriate. They allow employees freedom to innovate, and challenge, but they outline the limits of how that can be done.”

There are no hard and fast rules for discovering and articulating core values, but I’ll suggest that the list shouldn’t be long – probably four to six, truly reflective words or short phrases that capture “how we do things around here.” They can be about anything, but they should represent what’s truly important in an organization’s culture. I’m guessing 3M has something about being innovative in its core values; Ritz Carlton probably has something on being customer focused or service oriented; Mayo Clinic and many other health systems state that they put the needs of the patient first; and countless (perhaps most) organizations have some statements about how they treat people – their employees, customers, and other stakeholders – with respect, loyalty, servant leadership and putting others first.

There are also many ways to “find” your organization’s core values, but I think one of the most effective is in thinking about an organization’s highest performing, most respected employees and then inventorying behaviors, values, beliefs that seem to be consistent across those employees. If you begin to find similarities in behaviors inherent within your role model employees, you’re probably witnessing values that are core to the organization.

Keep in mind that core values are not just impressive words that senior leaders (or, worse, a marketing or HR department!) document, publish, and disseminate. They are not aspirational, but should reflect actual behaviors and principles important to the organization – they should reflect what most employees live by, at least most of the time.

Once you have your organization’s core values identified, then use them!

  • Communicate them frequently. Share stories and examples of employees living the values, which will serve to reinforce and strengthen them over time.
  • Use them for hiring new employees.
  • Train existing employees on the values – which behaviors are consistent with them, and which are not.
  • Embed them in performance evaluation and rewards. Hold employees accountable and coach workers when their behavior is inconsistent with values.
  • Embed them in key decision making processes, like the organization’s strategic planning process; consideration of new products or markets; decisions of acquisition or divesture; decisions of employee assignments or promotion; and so forth.
  • Evaluate at some regular frequency the organization’s consistency in living and sustaining values. Maybe not every year, but on occasion, leaders should consider the company’s values statement to make sure it truly reflects the organization’s culture and desired behavior.

So back to the Scout Law. Think about the power in these words. “A Scout is…

  • Trustworthy: A Scout tells the truth. He is honest, and he keeps his promises. People can depend on him.
  • Loyal: A Scout is true to his family, friends, Scout leaders, school, and nation.
  • Helpful: A Scout cares about other people. He willingly volunteers to help others without expecting payment or reward.
  • Friendly: A Scout is a friend to all.  He is a brother to other Scouts. He offers his friendship to people of all races and nations, and respects them even if their beliefs and customs are different from his own.
  • Courteous: A Scout is polite to everyone regardless of age or position. He knows that using good manners makes it easier for people to get along.
  • Kind: A Scout knows there is strength in being gentle. He treats others as he wants to be treated. Without good reason, he does not harm or kill any living thing.
  • Obedient: A Scout follows the rules of his family, school, and troop. He obeys the laws of his community and country. If he thinks these rules and laws are unfair, he tries to have them changed in an orderly manner rather than disobeying them.
  • Cheerful: A Scout looks for the bright side of life. He cheerfully does tasks that come his way. He tries to make others happy.
  • Thrifty: A Scout works to pay his own way and to help others. He saves for the future. He protects and conserves natural resources. He carefully uses time and property.
  • Brave: A Scout can face danger although he is afraid. He has the courage to stand for what he thinks is right even if others laugh at him or threaten him.
  • Clean: A Scout keeps his body and mind fit and clean. He chooses the company of those who live by high standards. He helps keep his home and community clean.
  • Reverent: A Scout is reverent toward God (or a higher being). He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others.”

They set clear expectations for behavior, and they dictate “how things are done around here” for Scouts. They’re solid principles for any teenage boy to live by; they’re solid principles for anyone, really. Core values, in fact.

Never stop improving!