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Are Your Values Costing You Too Much?

Big companies can afford big, broad, vague values. You can't. Here's how to pick values that will help your company grow.
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 In a new businesses, there are lots of things you just can’t afford. Those things are typically (and painfully) pretty obvious. As your business grows, a lot of these problems will go away.

But there are a bunch of other things you can’t afford that have nothing to do with money. One of the most complicated and least talked about is values. You absolutely cannot afford to have the wrong values when you're building your business.

As sad as it may sound, you need to adopt the values that are right for your business, and these will change from time to time. These are the values for the business - what your business stands for. They’re separate from your personal values.

At TFA, my college, our five core values are clear to all. We believe in:

  • Unstinting Effort
  • Pride of Craft
  • Courage of Our Convictions
  • Loyalty
  • Excellence   

Now, here are five core values from a large, mature corporation in our marketplace:

  • Fairness
  • Respect
  • Opportunity
  • Security
  • Inclusion

I hope the differences are obvious. Not one of the last set of words conveys any energy or a bias for action. They’re pretty much entirely devoid of emotional content. And even if I knew what some of these words were intended to mean, they don’t tell me jack about what makes the company stand up and stand out every day. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with broad, vague values. They’re just terribly wrong for a new, young business to  live by orlive up to. And that’s the real crux of the matter. You’ve got to make your core values real and you’ve got to make them matter, or you’re just wasting your breath.

If you still don’t get it, here’s a visual aid:

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Frankly, I couldn’t build a fire under any group of employees with a stem-winder about inclusion or security if my life depended on it. And democracy in meetings isn’t really a virtue. If I had the choice, I’d rather work for a tyrant any day than for a committee.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have any concrete values at all. I’m just saying that the values that will make or break your business should and will change over time. Here are some things to consider when selecting your core values:

  • Your core values need to be manageable and realistic for your business.
  • Your core values need to be relevant to your business and your employees. They should be unique, not generic.
  • Your core values need to be short and memorable - the shorter the better. Ideally they’d all fit on the back of your business card.
  • Your core values need to be as simple as possible, but no simpler.
  • Your core values need to be repeated constantly and internalized by everyone in the company.

So, assuming you’ve got the right values for your company’s developmental stage and size, how do you protect and promote them? Three basic rules:

  • Make your company values aggressive and demanding
  • Make them inflexible
  • Be totally intolerant of breaches

Once your values start to slide, it’s almost impossible to recover. And nothing is more central to your company’s culture and your ultimate shot at success than getting this process right. You’re the values cop.  You’ve got to be prepared to take it to people every day and insist that they get on the program or go somewhere else. Don’t confuse someone’s good manners with their willingness to change their behavior.  Any apology not accompanied by a change in behavior is an insult.

IMAGE: Martin Barraud/Getty
Last updated: Oct 23, 2012

HOWARD TULLMAN | Columnist

Howard A. Tullman is the CEO of 1871--Where Digital Startups Get Their Start, and is also the General Managing Partner of G2T3V, LLC and of Chicago High Tech Investment Partners. He is a member of the Chicago NEXT & Cultural Affairs Councils and the Illinois Innovation & Arts Councils; an adjunct professor at Kellogg; and an advisor to many start-ups. He is the former Chairman and CEO of Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy. Over the last 45 years he has successfully founded more than a dozen high-tech companies. @tullman

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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