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Step by step guide to defining your company core values

Create an actionable set of company core values through this tried and true process.

Table of Contents

When you’re starting a company, there isn’t a blueprint for the order in which you do things. Most often you start with an idea, but after that the path isn’t always clear. One step that’s easy to skip is defining your company’s values.

Get started with this template.

The case for core values

It’s easy to think of a company’s value system as meaningless words posted in the hallways.

Cat hanging from a rope on perseverance poster

When done right, company values can guide hiring decisions, decision making, and how people work together. Patrick Lencioni defines core values in the Harvard Business Review as “deeply ingrained principles that guide all of a company’s actions; they serve as its cultural cornerstones. They are inherent and sacrosanct; they can never be compromised, either for convenience or short-term economic gain. They are the source of a company’s distinctiveness and must be maintained at all costs.” Core values can’t be milquetoast like “kindness” and “work hard.” They need to have teeth to be worthwhile.

When to kick off the process

Switchboard embarked on this process about two years after I founded the company and a few years after we launched. We had grown to a team of 25 people distributed across multiple time zones. We had defined our strategy but the rules for how we worked together were informal, at best. We knew we needed to start a formal performance review process and realized it would be difficult to determine who was exceeding, meeting, or below expectations. We had been focusing the what people were accomplishing, but not the how it was being accomplished. Performance reviews were our trigger. Think about what milestone is right for your company: a launch, brand exploration, or even fundraising.

Who should be involved

Creating core values should not be a consensus driven process. Even for the most collaborative culture, it’s important to select a small group of people to work on this together. Start by figuring out who needs to be involved. Most likely it’s the company’s leadership team, but there may be other culture champions. Regardless, the group should be small and committed to the process. Be sure to choose one person to lead the process.

Create the first draft

I’ve defined values at six companies and the process we used at Switchboard has been the smoothest and fastest yet. We adopted a framework from The Grand that they use to define personal core values. We created a template you can use with your team that includes instructions and all the materials you'll need.

Step 1: Choose your list of possible company core values

We started with a list of about 130 words and each one of us circled every core value that resonated. Here’s the framework and list we used.

Step 2: Group all similar values together

If you’re like us, you have anywhere from a dozen to a few dozen words circled. The next step is to group the list of values you created in a way that makes sense to you. Create a maximum of five groupings with the template provided.

Step 3: Choose one representative word from each group

After you have your word groups, choose one word within each group that represents the label for the entire group. Don’t overthink your labels – there are no right or wrong answers. You are defining the answer that makes sense to you. Circle the label chosen for each grouping.

Step 4: Add a verb to each value label

Add a verb to each value so you can see what it looks like as an actionable core value. For example, if “integrity” is a value, then “Act with integrity” would be the statement.

Step 5: Share with each other

Steps 1-4 can be done asynchronously, but Step 5 must be done together. Set aside at least an hour to discuss the output of your work. Where are you aligned? Where do you diverge? How can you build on each other’s ideas? Your goal for the end of the session together is to be able to hand off a solid list to the person who is leading the process.

core values template

How to get from a rough draft of values to work by

Step 6: Let it marinade for a few days

You may think you nailed your values in your first draft, but that’s rarely the case. The project lead should take everyone’s notes and write up a consolidated list. Be wary of diluting the ideas – you still want to have a strong point of view. At this stage, each value statement should be a few words. We chose “we” statements but they can also be declarative. As in, "We take care of each other" versus "Take care of each other."

Step 7: Get back together to refine (repeat as needed)

Once your project lead has completed the unified draft, it’s time to regroup. Review the value statements as a group. Give each person the opportunity to share what they think. There will be some values that feel like a better fit than others. Look for overlap and redundancy. Think about what you can enforce. One good litmus test is to ask, “How would this value impact a hard decision?” Pressure testing values in hiring and firing decisions is also a valuable exercise.

Depending on your progress, you may need to refine and regroup on the value headlines a few times before they feel right. For example, one of our early draft values was, “What we do, we do better than anyone else.” As we reviewed it, however, we were concerned that it favored perfection over pragmatism. And quite honestly, the intent was good but it sounded obnoxious. We landed on, “We raise the bar” to capture our aspirations.

Step 8: Expand on what you mean

One of our values is, “We make space for creativity.” That sounds great, but what exactly does that mean? The next step in the process is to add more meat to each value statement. This will not only help employees understand the value, but will make sure that the team writing the values is actually aligned.

We followed this framework for each core value:

  • Headline of the core value
  • Explanation of what the value means
  • Examples of behaviors that support that value

Here’s an example:

You may need to go back to Step 7 and continue to refine with the team. You can even go back to your original list and see if anything that didn't make the original cut could be used to describe one of your values. Again, the person leading the process can write asynchronously and reviews can happen independently, but I strongly encourage you to meet as a team to discuss each full value statement.

Step 9: Introduce to the team

Once everyone feels really good about the values, it’s time to share them with the team. I recommend being transparent about the process so that everyone understands how you arrived on the list.

We ended up with five values and there happen to be five of us on the leadership team. Each one of us shared a value with the team, why the value was important, and how we can live each value.

You should also make it clear that you’re not looking for a lot of feedback. This may be antithetical to your company culture. For us, it felt foreign. But if you go back to the team you selected to work on the values and the time you invested refining the values, you should roll them out with the confidence that they are right. That said, you can keep the door open for anything that feels wrong.

Step 10: Implement your values

Believe it or not, defining core values is the easy part. Implementing them is hard. We have been slowly incorporating them into our daily work. For example, we included them in Greenhouse scorecards for interviews and Bonusly to give kudos. As we roll out performance reviews, we’ll be using them there too.

Can you successfully use this framework as a remote team? Absolutely – we did.

And one final shameless plug: Switchboard might just be the perfect platform for this process. You can set up a Core Values room, add you templates, drafts, and inspiration for the project team to access anytime. Try it now.

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