How We Created Our Core Values (and You Can Too)

By Phil Clark

Creating your core values is one of the most important, and most overlooked, practices in business. In particular, core values are important because they guide decision-making and help you clarify, articulate and enhance your employee culture. Core values are especially critical for growing companies because they provide a common framework (or decision-making lens) that can help employees respond to new opportunities and challenges in a way that is more consistent with your company’s overall mission.

I have found that there are three broad categories of how companies approach their core values:

1. Informal. Many businesses do not have a defined set of core values at all. These companies may have strong beliefs and values — it’s just that they are not written down. If this is you, don’t worry. We were in the same boat up until the summer of 2015.

2. Superficial. If you have core values, do they actually mean anything? For example, the core values of “communication,” “respect,” “integrity” and “excellence” sound pretty good. The problem is that these were Enron’s values. Enron was caught in a massive accounting scandal and self-imploded — causing the largest bankruptcy in American history at the time.

3. Resonant. When your core values resonate with your employees and your company’s larger purpose, they become useful tools to help guide decision-making. Resonant core values are everyday tools that support your company’s larger purpose.

How we did it at Exygy

Here are the steps we took at Exygy to create and define our core values:

Get the whole team together. Give everyone post-it notes and allow them to write out words that express their core values. Don’t edit at this stage — go for volume.

Organize into groups. Start to group the words into general topics and edit them down based on importance. Over time, you will find that the most resonant values will rise to the top. We were able to determine what really mattered to us the most.

Take the time necessary to do it right. Creating your core values the right way may take a long time. We had a group of people meeting once per week for several months to clarify and articulate our core values. I recommend putting core values up on the wall and testing them out for a period of time before making a final decision.

If a prospective core value doesn’t resonate a few weeks later, feel free to iterate on it based on feedback from your team.

Be aware of how different people learn

For core values to be resonant and enduring, the process of arriving at those core values has to intersect with how people learn. For example, some people learn by analyzing, some people learn from watching, and others learn from doing.

If you are an analyzer, you are going to be asking a lot of questions and processing out loud. Facilitators should recognize this type of learning style and be happy to answer as many questions as needed.

If you learn from observation, you might have to see the core values modeled in practice. Role playing in a group is a great way to help the observer feel more comfortable and confident.

For the doer, an intellectual discussion about core values isn’t enough. It’s critical for people with this learning style to get out there and test the core values in the real world. They then enjoy learning from any mistakes, iterating on the core value, and trying it out again.

Tips on creating your core values

Finally, here are some tips to help you maximize your chances of success:

Don’t just write the word. It’s extremely helpful to list actions, habits, and behaviors that show this core value in practice. Put up posters on the wall with the idea that people would record the way people live and enact the core values. These actions and habits are critical for everyone to see.

Recognize and reinforce your core values. If you want your core values to stick around, make it a practice to recognize folks who are doing a great job. One way to test this is you feel very excited when you see someone modeling a core value. If you aren’t excited, then you might have the wrong core values.

Tweak the wording as necessary. If done right, core values have an element of timelessness. However, it’s important to balance this characteristic with recognizing change. Things will inevitable change in your company. Keep working with your team to update, tweak, and refine your core values as necessary.

Image credit: Exygy

Phil Clark is Chief Creative Officer at Exygy–a digital agency and Certified B Corporation based in San Francisco. Phil leads Exygy’s product design and helps direct the overall strategy, vision, and operations of the company. You can write him at phil@exygy.com or follow him on Twitter: @philipwc