When new employees start at Acceleration Partners, I introduce them to our company culture by walking them through our vivid vision, core values and the AP Way. Recently, one new employee told me afterwards, "At my last company, our core values were all over the walls, but no one ever talked about them in my two years there."

That's something I've heard many times before--but I think companies ignore the importance of core values at their peril.

Admittedly, I haven't always believed in core values myself. I used to think they were just the wall art companies put up for people walking through their offices. I didn't see many companies taking them seriously or putting them into practice, which is where the rubber meets the road.

Today I think that more and more people are talking about company values--and for good reason. Core values are the DNA of your company's culture--and they're there whether you put them on the wall or not.

Every company has a culture, either by default or by design. When companies don't pay attention or guide the culture, the wrong values can become ingrained. Employees can learn by observation that there is a culture of secrecy, of placing blame or of cutting corners.

To take control and shape the behavior of your employees, you need to set core values deliberately, take them seriously and operationalize them. Having them without acting on them can actually be worse than not having them at all; that communicates inauthenticity.

Here are five steps to take to ensure your business has core values that are real and will stick:

1. Choose values that make your business stand apart.

Words like "integrity" and "transparency" really are not core values, they are the basic "table stakes" of any workplace or employee. Core values should be at the heart of what makes it special to work at your company specifically. Some examples include "act like an owner," "raise your bar" and "attitude of gratitude."

2. Keep the list short.

It's important to get to the core of what you value succinctly. Employees should be able to remember company values without a piece of paper. Two years ago, we reluctantly narrowed the list at our company down to from six values to these three and it was one of our best decisions:

  • Own It. We step up to the opportunities in front of us, bet on our own abilities, and rise to the occasion.
  • Embrace Relationships. Relationships advance our personal and professional lives, contributing greatly to our successes.
  • Excel & Improve. We believe that excellence and continuous improvement are inextricably intertwined.

Shortening our list has made a huge difference--particularly in judging performance and guiding decision making. Rather than wonder how to handle someone who does well in four or five out of six of our values, we now know we need three out of three every time.

3. Communicate and support the values you set.

It's not enough to have core values. You have to live them.

Company leaders need to talk about core values a lot, tell core values stories, and use values in the language of the day-to-day business. Call out people for both living by them and breaking them.

At our company, we do regular core values shout-outs. We also have prestigious company awards based on core values--which are voted on by peers. Our employees get that our values drive behavior.

4. Encourage collective enforcement.

Values are far more effective than rules at eliciting desired outcomes and behaviors. It's virtually impossible to cover all possible situations with rules or monitor minute-by-minute adherence.

In contrast, values can cover an endless variety of situations. Most importantly, enforcement comes from all the employees, who should be encouraged to openly question decisions or actions that are incongruous with the values. This is what translates values from words on paper into lived company culture.

5. Hire, promote and fire based on values.

Keeping someone whose views and actions clash with the culture sends a very bad message to the rest of the company. Even if the employee is a top performer, the best companies cut the cord when they realize there is a culture or values mismatch.

To avoid getting to this point, be sure to include behavior-based core value questions in the interview process and use them in performance reviews and promotion decisions. This follow-through shows everyone that the company is consistent in supporting values at every level.

Following these steps will help your company establish and propagate core values that are more than an office space punchline. The values you choose, in turn, will provide the groundwork for a strong company culture far into the future.