Core values are born, not made. While some organizations try to create core values out of thin air by choosing qualities that sound good on paper, you can't just invent core values in a boardroom or an executive team meeting.
When leadership "makes up" core values, these traits are merely aspirational, not real. As a result, these disingenuous values are never going to be powerful influencers within your culture--no matter how many posters and signs you hang up around the office trying to persuade people otherwise. Instead, they'll just become propaganda that's intended to motivate and manipulate people to act a certain way. As you've read in some of my past posts, motivators that don't come from within cause employees to focus on the wrong thing, and are always a red flag that leadership is stuck in short-term thinking.
So how do you select values that are truly representative of the best that your company currently offers? By looking at your people. Culture emerges from the collective group of people in the organization and the values that they hold dear. Therefore, the only logical way to come up with core values is to look at your people individually, talk about their strengths, and try to determine if there is commonality.
To get started, here are three questions for your leadership team to ask and answer:
Who represents the best of your company? The true core values of a company emerge from its people. Your organization has core values right now, whether or not you've formally stated them. These are the values that are embedded within the employees and the leadership of the organization. So instead of developing core values in a vacuum, it makes much more sense to begin by reflecting on who makes up your team, and what those people represent. This is exactly what we did at Pluralsight, though we had been in business for almost eight years before we sat down and tried to document our core values together for the first time.
Inspired by the work of Patrick Lencioni, when we were ready to determine our core values, we held an offsite with the entire leadership team. We asked every leader to provide a handful of names of people on their teams who they felt truly represented everything that was good about Pluralsight. Our collective goal was to identify the people who have led to our success in both tangible and intangible ways, generating a list of those who made us feel the best about being part of this company.
What makes these people the best? After we had our list of names up on the whiteboard for each team throughout the company, we went around the room and considered each name one at a time. We asked the group, "When you think about this person, what are the words that come to your mind?"
As we brainstormed, we wrote down the words that we called out around each name. The resulting whiteboard was covered with words that represented many of the positive attributes we'd identified throughout the company, qualities that the leadership team believed represented the reasons behind our success.
What are the common themes? Next, we took a few steps back from the whiteboard to examine whether any particular themes had emerged. Sure enough, we started to see certain commonalities across this diverse group of people. We thought further about the specific words that we wrote down, in an effort to determine what those qualities really meant to the company. We then worked to distill our findings down to three fundamental themes that strongly represented everyone listed on the whiteboard. For our particular group, we noticed that many comments revolved around people's ability to engage in a passionate discussion while listening to and learning from others. So we chose "truth seeking" as our first core value.
There were also many traits up on the board that had to do with taking risks, being willing to work hard, and being an ambassador for the brand and the company--in other words, treating the company as if it were your own, and always wanting to do what's best for the company. So we selected "entrepreneurship" as our second core value. Finally, we noticed that many of the points raised were in some way related to positivity, which led to the choice of "eternal optimism" as our third core value. Those three attributes have led to our success more than anything else, and we can see that by looking at the people who are here. So we honed in on those three traits as our core values: we are truth seekers, entrepreneurs, and eternal optimists.
Locking it in. Once you have brainstormed answers to the three questions above to identify your company's core values, it's important to let those values guide your hiring process. That way, you'll be hiring even more people who truly represent the qualities that are most important to the organization, to join those who already are flying the flag.
If you make it your goal to hire in line with your true core values, you'll ensure that you're able to maintain the culture that you've started to build. That's been our pattern at Pluralsight for ensuring that as we scale the business, we hire more people like the ones who are already here.
No posters needed. One caveat: By going through the exercise recommended above, you'll discover what your real core values are today--but these values may or may not be the ones you want. If this happens, you need to realize that you can't just change these values by putting posters up on the wall that proclaim other more idealized (made up) values. The only way to truly change your company's core values is to hire different types of people who reflect those values. By hiring for the aspirational values you want to see at your company, you'll start to build a new culture that supports and perpetuates those values.
We don't have any posters up in the office proclaiming our core values, yet every person at Pluralsight could recite them by heart and tell you exactly what they mean. That's because we talk about them all the time in the context of our everyday work, since they truly are that meaningful to us. Once you've built your core values into everything you do at your company--starting with the hiring process and continuing through executive decision making--there will be no question that these points are the real deal. When that happens, you won't need posters to convince anyone.