Business is full of decisions. What products or services to offer, which people to hire, which clients to serve, and what geographies to focus on are all important questions. A successful business needs to make these decisions efficiently and effectively.
Leadership teams navigate these choices in many ways. Previous outcomes give them experience. Processes help them ensure they investigate options, tradeoffs, and risks. However, the most important decision-making tool is developing a strong set of core values.
Unfortunately, many companies fail to get these right. Some create a set of core values which are a list of generic platitudes. Words like honesty, integrity, and ethics are table stakes for being in business, not ways to define who you are.
Other companies create lists of idealized desires for what they wish to be rather than who they currently are. This leaves companies with aspirational goals rather than a tool for embracing their raison d'etre.
As a business coach, I've found several ways to ensure that your values are effective decision-making tools rather than lip service on poster board.
1. Discover, don't decide.
Many teams approach core values as a decision. They look at a list of words and decide which words describe who they are. They debate the pros and cons of different terms trying to determine which one is correct. Values, however, are not something you can rationalize.
Instead, think of your core values as something buried deep within you that require unearthing. Looking at past decisions and behaviors will reveal that which already exists.
2. Values are reality not the ideal.
Often times when I start working with a new team, we review their existing core values, and they describe wonderful ideas. However, when we start looking at recent decisions, policies, and incentive systems, we soon realize that none of these are alive in the company.
The mistake they've made is creating an idealized set of aspirational values that feel nice rather than a list of descriptors that illustrate reality. I like to joke that your values should be fifteen pounds overweight, have a receding hairline, and drink a little too much. If your values look perfect, then they are probably not right.
3. Your values should have a dark side.
One of my personal core values is self-reliance. Usually, this serves me well and by embracing it I'm aligned and in my flow state more often than not. However, sometimes it works against me. For example, I don't like someone taking my bags to my room at a hotel. I'll balance two suitcases on top of a roller just so that I don't have to rely on a bellhop. My method doesn't make sense, but it's the reality of who I am.
I know that a leadership team has nailed a core value when they can point to situations where the value has required them to do something that was difficult or seemingly unnecessary compared to other teams. You should feel compelled to live you values, even when it doesn't make complete sense.
4. Each value needs an anti-value.
Core values are tools for making difficult decisions. And in order to serve that purpose well, you need to know what you are choosing as well as what you're not choosing. A core value reflects a trade off between two equally valid choices. The harder the choice, the more powerful the core value becomes.
I like to call the things you don't choose "anti-values." They are things you're willing to give up in order to live your value. For example, if one of your core values is collaboration, then you might be willing to give up competition. In that case, you won't create individual incentive plans or promote head-to-head challenges and still be true to your values.
My test for anti-values is if you can switch the order and give them to another company and it still works, then you have a good pair. It means that you've given up something of value in your choice.
5. Identify moments in time that illustrate them
One of the most powerful parts of your core values is the stories you tell about them. For each core value, I have the team identify two to three cases when they had to use that core value to make a tough decision. It could have been to fire someone or to continue or discontinue a project. Sometimes the stories are how they didn't follow their core values and how it hurt them.
It's okay if your team prints up a poster of your core values or paints them on the walls of your office, but if that's all you do, then you've missed the point. Core values aren't window dressings; they should be used daily to guide actions and decisions.