How to Define Your Company Values in 5 Steps

Company values, whether written or unwritten, form the basis of your business's culture. When your company has strong values that everyone understands, practices and demonstrates outwardly, then it will attract and retain employees, customers and other stakeholders. The financial impact is hard to quantify, but it may be the most important factor supporting your bottom line. If you don't have a formal written document defining your core principles, then consider asking your employees, the heart of your organization, to help you craft one. Here's how:

 Company values should focus first and foremost on your employee culture.

  1. Get your leadership on board. Begin by asking your executives to write down four to five business values that are important to them individually. Each one should begin with a verb and be no more than four words in total. Ask each leader to include a story or two that illustrates these values. If the value is "exceed customer expectations," a success story could be a case study wherein someone went the extra mile for a client. Collect the values and related stories, then discuss. If you have some overlapping ideas, pick the four or five that you believe are most important and better define them. Be sure to identify how these values impact your customers, suppliers, employees and the overall community. How will they contribute to your success, financially or otherwise?
  2. Seek employee input and feedback. Once leadership has initiated the process, ask the rest of your company to engage in the same survey. Have employees individually develop values and stories, then engage in group discussions. You may find some differences in which values should be prioritized across different departments. For example, "put customers first" might be a core value in operations, while "develop and grow our human capabilities" might be important in human resources, or "solve problems quickly" in IT. Respect these different viewpoints and search for common themes.
  3. Revise and refine. Next, your whole company needs to pinpoint the four or five core values that define your overall culture. Yes, this may require some big meetings, but they will only serve to reinforce and spread your principles, which is the goal here. Your leadership's and employees' engagement in these discussions may surprise you. A lot of passion goes into prioritizing values, and that's exactly what you want to see. If any disagreements arise, don't be afraid to revise so that the important ideas are covered.
  4. Formalize your core values and reinforce them. Remember, your company has decided that these values are important, so put them on the walls, on the website and in the company newsletter, and discuss them once per quarter in a big meeting. Have a plan to give them consistent attention and share success stories. Designate value ambassadors, or employees who have shown excellence in practicing a particular principle, and have them coach others.
  5. Be committed to your values. Use them as you conduct business, especially when it comes to hiring people, firing people and evaluating performance. Do your employees continue to embody the culture you've defined? Key performance indicators and bonuses should incentivize your values. After all, you'll want to hang on to those who support your mission.

Make sure your leadership is truly committed to prioritizing your company values in both the short and long term. Any company that continually sacrifices its principles in exchange for short-term financial gain isn't operating in a value-centric culture. Employees, customers and stakeholders recognize this hypocrisy and respond negatively. There's no point in seeking to define, formalize and spread something that is just a bunch of words on paper. Defining your values will take a large time investment, but in the end, your staff will know what you stand for and why.

Every office is made up of vastly different personalities. How do you see these helping or hindering the value-definition process? Let us know what you think by commenting below.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is an NCMM contributor and a freelance reporter who contributes regularly to The Boston Globe and Harvard Gazette. He also trains Fortune 500 executives in business communication skills as an instructor for EF Education. Circle him on Google+.


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