At my company, Next Step Publishing, our core values have taken on a life of their own. They have essentially become the identity of our company--our DNA, if you will. I know this because we often get comments from customers that specifically relate to one or more of our core values.

What are our core values? In no particular order: We aim to WOW! We are accountable. We do whatever it takes. We're helpful.

I highly recommend coming up with your own set. Here are some of the lessons learned as my company went through the process:

First, it's important to note that we didn't invent these values first and then rally around them. They were always there; we just defined them.

The process started about a year ago, when I asked my team to discuss what makes us special and unique, and what's important to us. Some common themes emerged. But we didn't stop there because we didn't want to be one of those companies that have their core values posted all over the office while nobody really knew what they meant. So we held more meetings and asked the team to give examples of what they thought it would actually mean for a Next Step employee to exhibit each core value. Our mission was clarity around each value.

So, for example, we brainstormed about what "We aim to WOW!" meant in everyday terms; here's what ended up on the whiteboard: "Be incredible about follow through. Be adamant about closing loops. Close loops while preserving our values and protecting our assets. Go beyond the call of duty. Do that one extra thing that most other people would not do. Write thank you notes. Pay massive attention to detail. Never ask, 'Is this part of my job?' Help our community. Be a part of the solution. Deliver great service, branding and tangible results to our advertisers. Actually do what we say we're going to do. Step up when others are not 100%. Become trusted advisors to our clients. Be vigilant about high standards. Don't compromise our values."

And we went that deep with each of our core values. The result: For one thing, both new and existing Next Step employees know exactly what our values imply in terms of daily actions.

Even better, our customers are noticing. I get emails and calls weekly from customers thanking us for our "old fashioned" service.

We also work hard to keep our core values lively and fresh. I give awards for those who have best exemplified our core values. In our company newsletter, we call out employees who were "caught" living a core value. When I get an e-mail from a client, praising a Next Step team member, I'll share that email with our entire team and tie it into one of the core values.
We are also working our core values into our interview process, orientation and employee manuals.

An unplanned benefit of having core values is that it creates an automatic eject button for employees who do not belong. If a new employee has a hard time naturally living up to our core values, he sticks out like a sore thumb. He just doesn't fit into our culture. Then one of two things tends to happen: the employee will either quit (because he knows he doesn't fit it) or be quickly warned that improvement is necessary.

A while back, I had to fire an employee who wasn't able to live up to our core values. She got mad, said that we were a clique, and accused me of creating a company that excluded those who don't conform to the culture.

I was proud to agree with her.