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Define Your Personal Core Values: 5 Steps

If your company has core values, shouldn't you? Establishing your own personal guidelines can remove risk and accelerate success.

Most concede the power of core values in business. Jim Collins made a great case in Built to Last. But it's difficult to accurately create or accept core values for your company if your own personal core values are unclear.

Many claim to understand their own values, but I maintain you don't really know them until you have:

  1. Articulated them clearly in writing.
  2. Tested them through daily decision-making.

Much like company core values, your personal core values are there to guide behavior and choice. Get them right and you'll be swift and focused in your decision-making, with clear direction. Get them wrong or leave them ambiguous, and you'll constantly wonder how you got into this mess.

Although your personal core values may not exactly match anyone else's, they still help you determine your surrounding culture. Most smart people consciously or unconsciously use personal core values to select friendships, relationships and business partnerships. Your core values also help you wisely manage your personal resources such as time and money.

Simply put, I use my personal core values as decision guidelines that keep me true to myself, and out of trouble. Here are mine with brief descriptions:

Truth

Some people are skilled liars. I am not. I function best when people are direct and honest. I make it clear in conversation and in writing that truth is necessary in my world, no matter how painful. This is probably why I thrive as a New Yorker.

Diligence

I am a contact management freak. I focus on punctuality, returning phone calls and e-mails within the hour or at least the day whenever possible. I hear screaming in my head if I have left anyone hanging. I also make sure my statements are substantiated, hence the reason you'll rarely see me speak in absolutes without doing my homework.

Consistency

Since people pay attention to my writing and talks, credibility is critical, and I have a lot to live up to. Hypocrisy is deadly in my world and this core value reminds me to integrate humor, the Awesome Experience, ROAR! and all my other lessons into my life and work, every single day.

Creativity

You would think a writer, marketer, and theater graduate wouldn't need creativity as a core value. But when it's been a long month of travel, it's 3 a.m. and the column, speech, or book chapter is pending, I have to remind myself that I need to take that extra step to make my material compelling so I can intrigue, entertain, and connect with my audience.

Impact

Like most entrepreneurs, I see potential everywhere. This value reminds me to disregard when my brain is saying: "I can do that!" and instead ask the question: "Should I do that?" The criteria are simple: Maximum results for minimum effort. Each shiny new opportunity gets evaluated this way.

Some of my personal traits like passion, integrity, and energy don't qualify in my mind as core values because I follow these instinctively without consideration. They are unnecessary in my decision making process. I refer to them as my Table Stakes.

Now it's your turn to identify your values.

Personal Core Values Exercise:

Grab a notebook. It's time to do some writing. Give yourself quiet space, no distractions, and at least an hour to reflect on each section.

Step 1--Think through and describe the following in detail:

  1. What have been your three greatest accomplishments?
  2. What have been your three greatest moments of efficiency?
  3. What are any common rules or themes that you can identify?

Step 2--Think through and describe the following in detail:

  1. What have been your three greatest failures?
  2. What have been your three greatest moments of inefficiency?
  3. What are any common rules or themes that you can identify?

Step 3--Identify three or four brief sentences of advice you would give to yourself based upon these commonalities.

Step 4--Next try and reduce them to a few words. For example: If your advice is: "Don't overindulge in food and booze at parties and get in trouble," reduce that down to Keep Control Through Moderation, or even Moderation.

Step 5--Now comes the fun. You need to test the value. Think of a situation where following your core value hurts you rather than helps you. For example you might think Innovation sounds good until you realize that your life thrives on stability rather than constant change. You have to think it through carefully. If you can't identify a legitimate case where the value steers you wrong, you probably have a good core value.

Know that this process requires focused time and thought. I recommend doing it with someone you trust. Then you'll get honest feedback and you can help each other. It may require several discussions over weeks or even months. Your values may adjust and develop over time just as you do, so embrace the change.

As Mahatma Ghandi said, "Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny."

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Last updated: Apr 26, 2013

KEVIN DAUM | Columnist

An Inc. 500 entrepreneur with a more than $1 billion sales and marketing track record, Kevin Daum is the best-selling author of Video Marketing for Dummies and the executive producer of Amilya! on 77WABC New York. Sign up here and never miss out on Kevin's thoughts and humor.

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



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