Originally Published 03/29/2021
There are a few exercises I believe everyone should do in life to discover their calling and create a compass to guide their life. They are:
- Discover and Declare Your Why
- Define your Core Values
- Create your Mission Statement
- Create your Vision for your future and
- Create your Life Roles
I have done each of these for my personal life, my family, and my vocation and I encourage you to do the same. These take time and intentionality to complete these, but I believe it will pay you huge dividends and allow you to live a fulfilling live you were called to live.
In this blog I will talk about how to define your core values.
What are Core Values?
Core values are set of agreed upon values that define your culture. This includes a set for you as an individual, a set for your family and a set for your company. We believe that every person, and furthermore, every group of people have a set of core values. You may not have defined them, and you may not have them on a wall, but they are present. They are a set of shared values that defines the culture or agreed upon principles of every group. This set of values allows the group to operate knowing what is acceptable and what is not.
You will know the core values of any group typically within 15 minutes of interaction with that group. It is always present and companies with strong culture can almost feel the core values, it’s almost palatable.
Defining your core values is the act of listing them out so that others can see and create a common acceptance, but also to act as a guide to react to future changes, how to make decisions and what behavior is acceptable.
As your life changes, your family changes, or your company evolves, what you value and how you act will change and therefore core values should change. You will either need to change the way you act or change your core values, but you cannot have a defined set of core values and then act differently. Especially with a company that has them on the wall as you will lose all credibility and create a toxic culture.
So, core values are simply the shared values that define your culture.
Why Defining Your Core Values is Important
You may ask if everyone, person, family, and company already have core values that you know by interacting with them, why then define them? The first reason is they keep you grounded and act like guardrails for your life, helping you to make better decisions. We all from time to time will have moods or situations that cause us to act differently. Once you have a defined set of core values you can ask yourself “would this action help me to live my core values?” This could be who you should marry, who to hire for your company or what company to work for. All these decisions can be made easier with a defined set of core values.
Another reason to have a defined set of core values is it will help you keep the right people in your life and with your company. When you have strong defined core values it will keep people that are not a culture fit out and keep the right people from leaving. Companies with strong cultures will have team members that are not a culture fit and want to leave on their own because every day will become uncomfortable if the values do not align with theirs. It is important that core values should not stop diversity or inclusion into your company. You want people whose values are not the same but comparable. I have a different personal core values than my company and that is good for diversity, but they must be compatible.
A defined set of core values can create unity and better cohesion. It’s hard to get any group of people to agree on a shared vision of the future and going in the same direction but it’s almost impossible if they don’t have shared values. A defined set of core values will help reduce friction and allow you and your team to achieve more together. It also can reduce family fights as conflicts can be avoided if their actions do not align with shared values. They give your team or family the framework of how to act and know what is important. This empowers people to act and make decisions leading to more productivity and less confrontations.
Another way they provide course correction or guardrails for your life is if you read your personal, family, and company core values daily and have to think about them daily, they will stick with you. When you find yourself acting counterculture to your defined values it can cause you to correct yourself. When you proudly declare them to others and have accountability partners, they can call you out and help you course correct.
Lastly, when you have defined core values it can help make tough conversations and critical feedback more effective and easier. For example, if you have defined family core values, it can make spousal disputes easier to resolve. Instead of telling your spouse they are wrong, you are using shared values that you both agreed on and it’s the values, not you, that show you are wrong. When I am coaching couples before they are married, I always walk them through this exercise, it is so important to define and agree upon these before marriage. Instead of saying “I am unhappy with how little our family prays together” you could instead say “we agreed on the core value of faith, how are we living that out right now? Let’s find ways together to better live this.” This can also be applied to getting feedback from accountability partners when you have defined personal values and tough conversations with team members with company core values.
How to Define Your Core Values
Defining a personal set of core values versus a family set of core values versus a business is very similar. The only difference is in the first steps you will want to do this with a group of stakeholders with the family and business. In my opinion you should create personal values first, family second, and company third since personal core values are so important to make those other decisions.
When you are defining your core values it helps to start with discovering and declaring your why. Your why is the driving force behind everything you do. Although over time your values may change, I believe when you discover your true why it never changes. So, using discovering your why first will help give you the framework you need to define your core values. You can do it without it, but it makes it harder. I also believe it's easier to define core values before you create a mission.
Once you have discovered your why and you are ready to define your core values, as a person of faith, I would recommend you start by seeking God for discernment. Create some time where you have no other distractions and seek God’s help. If you are doing company or family values, it helps to do this part as a group but can also be done individually if you are the only person of faith.
Once you have gotten yourself into the right mindset and you have undistracted time, I would take a blank piece of paper (I think going analog helps you think through it better and reduces distractions) and just start to think about what values define you, or your family or your company depending on which ones you are working on. This should be done by yourself before bringing in others no matter which set you are working on. Do not stop writing whatever comes to mind. You can narrow them down later. This is what I refer to as the spaghetti approach. Just like when you are cooking spaghetti you can throw it against the wall, some noodles will stick and some will not, but you only know if you throw them all. I do not believe you can write down too many. If needed you can do this over several sessions over several weeks. I tend to get random thoughts that keep going through my head when I do this type of process long after the set time and end up with pockets full of sticky tabs. Take as long as you need to brainstorm. Also, if you need help you can google core values and there are many pages with lists of 100s of values to pick from. I would try to do at least one session without that help to get your words, not others, out.
Once you have a giant list you should again plan time out to sit down with undivided attention and narrow you list down to just 7 or less. The fewer, the better!!!!! Why 7 or less, because these are CORE values, not all the values you hold. If you are doing family or company core values this is where all stakeholders should bring their list and work on this part together.
There are many implicit values that may not make it into your core values. A great example is integrity. Most people, family, and companies that will embark on the process of defining their core values have a shared value of integrity. It's table stakes that are just assumed. I am reminded of the part in the classic “A Few Good Men”:
Lt. Kaffee: “Corporal, would you turn to the page in this book that says where the mess hall is, please?”
Cpl. Barnes: “Well, Lt. Kaffee, that's not in the book, sir.”
Lt. Kaffee: “You mean to say in all your time at Gitmo, you've never had a meal?”
Cpl. Barnes: “No, sir. Three squares a day, sir.”
Lt. Kaffee: “I don't understand. How did you know where the mess hall was if it's not in this book?”
Cpl. Barnes: “Well, I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time, sir.”
There was no need to print how to find the mess hall, it’s the same with some values that are inherent. You may still believe that integrity is so integral to your values that it is a core value, then you should define it, but the key is to keep it to the core.
I would argue anything longer than 7 is not core. It is often cited that the reason phone numbers were created as 7 digits is that it is considered to be the longest set of numbers a person can reasonably memorize. If you cannot cite your core values on demand, or your family cannot cite them or anyone in your company can not cite them and explain them then they are not CORE they are just shared values. How can you use them if nobody knows them? I have yet to see a company with a lot of core values with lengthy explanations, that even the senior leadership that created them, can recite them. Not to mention, the team members that are supposed to be living them daily cannot recite them. What is the purpose of defining them if people don’t internalize them and use them daily?
Once you have it to 7 or less (5 is ideal) I would then put them in order of importance (do this together with other stakeholders for company or team values). I would not try to have an acronym or try to worry about the perfect word at this point, just get values that have the right essence and get them in the right order.
It should also be noted if you are starting a company you should create the core values for the culture you want to create. These should be congruent with your personal values but not the same. Companies' core values often reflect a founder but will evolve as the company evolves.
Now you have a list in order of 7 or less, this is where I would share them with as many people as you can. Ask them to read them and then ask do I/we live these core values every day? Does this make you think of me/us? Is there a value I/we exemplify that I should add? Does this order reflect the level of importance to me/us? Once you have got enough feedback and made any tweaks you can move onto the next step.
Next, you want to take your list and enhance it. You will want to review your values and pick the perfect names. For example, I had a core value of professionalism as a core value for my company. When I got to this step it still existed because feedback was positive around it. However, I also had explained what it meant to me. At this point I realized from additional feedback on just the word that honor was a better explanation of the value I was referring to. You can also get creative here. I almost changed honor to coffee pot. The reason was when I explain this core value I often say “when you empty a coffee pot in a group setting what should you do? Ask others if they are done drinking and if not make another pot.” Another company has a core value called Gumby, after the flexible cartoon character instead of using the word we use, adaptable. This helps people remember it and understand it better. Our friends at Center for Victory have great core values like “Be Like Fred,” to refer to treating others with respect like Fred Rodgers or “Cow Bell” where they celebrate wins by ringing a cowbell. Have fun but also do not get so fancy that you lose the actual core value. This is also where you can look at acronyms. Although these are very valuable tools to use for memorization, they can often lead to an order that doesn’t show the importance level of your values or lead to you choosing words that are not the preference word. I was opposed to using an acronym for any of my values but ended up with acronyms for my company and personal that are not only acronyms, but they describe the core values. That was God’s work. I remember a friend helping me define my company's core values knowing I was against making an acronym since it might change the values, so he convinced me to change flexible to adaptable and professionalism to honor. Once I agreed with him, he said look you have an acronym, its TEACH Passion.
Once you are done making the tweaks, the next part is to create a brief description. You want this to be one sentence or less that explains that value. Again, less is more, if you have more to say then you can verbalize it when discussing them. This step is important because values mean different things to different people. For example, one of my company’s core values is charitable. What does that mean to you? For some it means we give a large percentage of our profits to non-profits. We do support non-profits we believe in, but that's not why this is a core value. For us it's a mindset. It's about being good stewards with our resources and helping others. For example, if we take a large portion of our day to help another financial planning practice that not only does not pay us for the help, but it also costs us time we could be serving our clients, we believe that is being charitable to others. We define this core value as “we strive to be good stewards and share our blessings with others.” Blessings are talents we have, knowledge we have acquired, money we have made, and so much more!
Now is the fun part. Take your hard work for a test drive. Start saying them daily and talking about them. See how they feel. Does it feel true to how you live? Does it seem foreign to you? It’s okay to make changes!
Once you feel they are right, and you have given it time to “test drive” them, it’s time to announce them. This is the part where you need to share them and post them for others to see!
So, my process to define your Core Values are:
- Seek God for discernment.
- Use “spaghetti approach” and write down any value you can think of.
- Narrow your list to 7 or less.
- Arrange list in order of importance.
- Seek advice from others.
- Tweak for acronyms, better names, or unique values.
- Add descriptions that are one sentence or less.
- Test drive them to see if it feels right.
- When they feel right, share them with everyone!
Don’t Memorize, Internalize
Defining your Core Values is useless if you do not use them. I love asking others what their company's core values are. If they cannot tell them to me, are they really the “core” values or really what defines their culture? If you are going to take the time to develop this important tool, you must use them to get the return on your investments. If I get somebody that can recite them, I ask them to tell me what they mean to them. If they get past this, my third question is “how do you live them out daily?” Most people I have ever asked this to cannot answer all three without guessing or saying they just don’t know. Memorizing them is not enough; you must internalize them where they become part of you.
To help me internalize my values I read my personal core values, my family core values, and my company core values out loud every single day. The act of verbalizing them, not just reading them is important.
Next, I have them displayed in multiple locations that I see. Each week I rewrite my personal, family, and company core values (along with my prayers, affirmations, missions, whys, roles and visions) in my journal. The act of writing these 52 times a year helps internalize them and then I use my journal as my tool to read them out loud. In addition to having them in my journal, they are physically displayed in many places. My company’s are displayed in all of our office locations and my home office. I have my personal core values on my desk in my office and my home office. My family ones are framed on our wall.
In addition, I talk about them with others. At a company level we discuss them every single Tuesday, not just read them, we discuss what they mean and how we live them. We use them in our everyday language and social media posts. I talk to others about my personal core values frequently and as a family we discuss them.
I also create systems of accountability with core values. In my company, our quarterly reviews for our team members are based on our core values as is our bonus structure. On a personal level I have people that know them that call me out if I don’t live them. On a family level my wife and I will use them and call each other out when we do not live them.
Another important way to internalize is to celebrate living them. On a company level we have an internal award that celebrates the team member that lives our core values the most. We celebrate weekly wins around the core values. On a family level we do our best to encourage and celebrate ways we live our core values. On a personal level through journaling, I celebrate actions I have done to live my core values.
The best way to internalize them is to put them into practice by using them to make diversions. When you are contemplating your next big decision as a person, family, or in your company, ask yourself if your actions are living your core values. This causes you to think deeply about these and internalize them. Like anything in life there is no substitute for experience.
Lastly you need to review them at least annually in a formal way to see if they are still relevant. On a company level, we do this at our annual planning meeting and at a personal and family level this is done as part of my end of the year review process.
You cannot just memorize them you must internalize them. They have to become part of the essence of who you are, who your family is, and who your company is.
So, to internalize Core Values you should:
- Read them daily.
- Display them.
- Discuss them with others.
- Create accountability to them.
- Celebrate actions of living them.
- Use them in decision making.
- Review annually for updates.
Defining My Core Values
Defining your core values is not just something I am telling you to do. It’s something I have practiced routinely for over 5 years. Here are my Core Values that I read daily.
My Personal Core Values
Called to Serve!
Serve God by serving others
To learn you must teach
Lead by example
PMA. Bring energy and passion to all I do
My Family Core Values
Our faith compels us to live our lives as called.
We are thankful for what we have been given. Every day is a gift from God.
We give freely our time, talents, and our possessions to others, because they are gifts from God
We show God's love everyday by how we treat each other.
We are called to serve others and lead by example and stop learning so we can lead better
My Company Core Values
We strive to work together to empower others.
We strive to educate our clients and ourselves every day.
We strive to create personalized plans with adaptable strategies for the goals of our clients and our team.
We strive to be good stewards and share our blessings with others.
We strive to honor others by serving them.
We love life, financial planning, our clients, and our team! Our deep passion fuels our work and guides what we do.
Tell Us What You Think
I love helping others define their core values. If you need help, reach out. Also, if you have defined your core values, I would love to hear them. If you have a different approach, share it with us. You can leave comments on my LinkedIn or email me. If you found this helpful, please multiply by sharing it with another leader!