It's never too early -- or too late -- to define company values. Defining company values is the first step in intentionally designing the culture you want at your company -- and ensuring that the core principles endure even at scale

But how do you actually choose the values that are right for your company (or do you "choose" them at all)? 

Here are four guidelines that can help you in this critical exercise. 

1. Do some investigation.

Every company has a culture -- whether it's codified or not. With that in mind, start by observing what's already happening. What are the unspoken norms? What behavior "fits in" on a team, and what doesn't? What do star performers have in common? 

The process by which you do your observation will depend on the size of your company. For example, if you have a small team, you might consider having conversations with each team member about what they think the company's values are. For larger organizations, a survey and/or focus groups might be in order.

2. Focus on the "how."

I often think of values as the "how" principles at an organization. The "what" is the basis of job descriptions -- the discrete tasks each employee is expected to do -- and the "why," a person's purpose, is personal to each of us and therefore difficult (and arguably inappropriate) to codify at a company level. 

To focus on the "how" instead of the "what" or "why," think about your values in terms of behaviors. The benefit of behaviors instead of adjectives or nouns is that behaviors are more replicable and less subjective. For example, "judgment" can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but "treating customers fairly" is more objective, and therefore a better north star on how people should do their work -- especially in tricky situations. 

3. Don't be afraid to be different. 

In competitive markets, the worst thing to do is to blend in with the competition. The same goes for your company's culture, which is essentially your talent attraction and retention "product."

It's worth some extra thinking to put your own unique spin on your values, even if you cast a smaller net as a result. 

For example, one of our company values is "Wombattitude." We wanted to create a value to guide our customer interactions, but we felt that phrases like "customer-first" or "customer-centric" are so overused as to be meaningless. 

In a brainstorming session, our director of marketing commented on the fact that our service team does a wonderful job taking care of our customers, and we should all model ourselves after them. That team calls themselves the Wombats (a story for another day) -- and voila! "Wombattitude" was born. 

Wombattitude is the value that we get the most feedback on -- both positive and negative (some employees consider it a bit silly). But even if some reactions are lukewarm, the fact that people comment on it means it stands out, and that is "mission accomplished" in my book. 

4. Less is more.

Employees can't live a company's values if they can't remember them. With this in mind, don't dilute the value of your values by making a laundry list. If at all possible, try to stick to five or fewer.

The other reason that less is more when it comes to values is it forces leaders to be deliberate in their choices and definitions. Values should remain relatively constant even as a company grows, so being deliberate up front will help produce fundamental values that will stand the test of time. 

The process of defining company values isn't easy, but it's one of the most important things you can do to attract and retain great people.