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Carving Out Core Values

When Rob Dube hired a coach to help his company grow, one of his first assignments was to identify Image One’s core values.

"I intrinsically knew what our values were, but putting them on a piece of paper and being able to communicate them was new," says Dube, founder of Image One, a $4 million company in Oak Park, Mich., which provides print-imaging equipment and services.

The results have been dramatic, Dube says: "There’s a greater sense of purpose here now. The process of defining corporate values is a natural way to get at your identity. It answers the question, ‘What are we all about?’ which helps both you and employees become more passionate about the business."

Indeed, corporate values may sound like a soft subject, but entrepreneurs agree that it’s essential to growth. "Putting our corporate values in writing has created an esprit de corps that didn’t exist before," says Michael Hurley, founder of Green Square Inc., a $1 million document-management consultancy in Chicago. "It’s given people a way to verbalize what we stand for as a company — it’s almost given the company a life of its own."

Why bother?

Defining core values strengthens corporate culture by painting a crystal-clear picture of your company’s mission and personality. This stronger identity pays off in a variety of ways:

Hiring and firing. Many business owners believe corporate values take precedence over skills when recruiting. "If job candidates can’t relate to our core values, then we don’t want them here," says Brian Scudamore, founder of 1-800-Got-Junk?, a $25 million garbage-removal franchise based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Corporate values can also weed out bad apples. "It helps employees get very clear about who they are and whether they belong here," says Cynthia Driskill, founder of CDG & Associates, a human-resources-systems consultancy in Dallas with 100 employees and about $16 million in annual revenues. "When the relationship is not working, we now have a tool to discover what’s broken."

Faster, easier decisions. "Core values allow us to move at greater velocity," says Steve Schmidt of Abraham Technical Services, an $18 million provider of bar code and wireless data solutions in Maple Grove, Minn. "They help our people make decisions more rapidly and with less conflict because we all have the same starting point — that this is right and this isn’t."

Core values prevent second-guessing, adds Dave Galbenski, founder of Contract Counsel, a legal staffing firm in Madison Heights, Mich., with more than $4 million in annual revenues. "They give us a reason for our decisions. No matter what action we’re taking, we can bounce it against something that’s concrete."

Prospecting panache. Being able to discuss corporate values makes your company more memorable to potential clients, say business owners. What’s more, potential clients may recognize themselves in your corporate values or identify something that’s important to them in a partner.

Leadership tool. It’s key to "walk your talk." Defining corporate values helps employees and CEOs alike to identify their weak spots.

Getting started

There are a variety of methods to define your core values. Some entrepreneurs begin by writing down all the words that describe their companies — now and how they want it to look in the future. Then they boil those ideas down to a few key words or phrases.

Another exercise is to pretend that you must send to Mars three or four employees who by their actions and personalities will convey to the Martians what your company is about.

Some CEOs do these exercises with their senior managers; others like to get employees and even customers involved.

Hurley believes in seeking input from as many sources as possible: "I think you need to come to employees with the foundational message: This is what we think our core values are. But then ask, ‘Does it make sense? Is this important to you?’ They may see a different nuance."

In fact, Hurley pitched Green Square’s corporate values during a 10-city road show, using both existing clients and prospects as a mini focus group. "Basically we said: ‘Here’s what we’re about. Is it what you’re looking for?’ " explains Hurley. "If your core values don’t resonate with prospects, then you’re probably in the wrong market. If they don’t match with existing clients, you’ve got another challenge."

Implementing

Defining and introducing corporate values is no easy task. At Image One, the initial process took about nine months, says Dube:

  1. First he sat down with his executive team, and they identified seven key traits: people first, hungry, thinkers, honest, humble, caring and positive attitude.
  2. Next they introduced those values to employees at a company-wide meeting and let the values "marinate" for about three months so people could get used to them.
  3. During the next quarter, the executive team held individual meetings with employees to discuss how they exemplified the values, along with their strengths and weaknesses.
  4. Then the executive team began to bring up core values in weekly department meetings, along with anecdotes that illustrated them.
  5. Finally, another company meeting was held as a refresher. Many companies post their corporate values on banners, plaques and various documents. That’s fine, but to really pay off, core values must influence behavior. CEOs’ action strategies should include:
    • Using core values in employee performance reviews.
    • Recognizing and rewarding employees who exemplify core values.
    • Sharing anecdotes that illustrate core values.

During monthly meetings at CDG, employees recite the corporate values. "It could be perceived as rote, but routine is important," explains Driskill. "Saying values out loud — and hearing them — helps to reinforce them."

Other tips for instilling core values:

Keep it simple. Stick to four to seven core values so they’re easier to remember.

Be unique. Strive for values that reflect how your firm stands out from the crowd.

Be realistic. Don’t choose values that are too grandiose or idealistic to achieve, such as being perfect every day. Certainly, core values can be inspirational, but they also should be attainable.

Stay committed. Defining corporate values is the easiest step; implementing them is far more difficult.

It’s important to revisit your values (experts suggest at least once a year) to make sure they’re accurate. Although core values don’t typically change, how you phrase them might.

For example, Image One revised its definition for what being "hungry" meant. "Employees were taking it to be a sort of aggressive ambition, whereas we intended it to reflect the pursuit of quality — being the best you can be," explains Dube.

Writer: TJ Becker

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