Core Values or Wishful Thinking? by David Chavez

Core ValuesAs a growing company, which of the following Core Values could serve you the best?

Customer service above-and-beyond the call of duty


Increasing profits by 25% this year

If you chose any answer other than the first one—Customer service above-and-beyond the call of duty—it is time for a lesson in Core Values. Many growing companies have unfortunate misconceptions about Core Values: What are they? And what are they not? Most importantly, why are they critical to a company’s success?

Case in point, only the first choice in the above list is actually an example of a Core Value.
As defined by founder and CEO of Gazelles, a global executive education and coaching company, Verne Harnish, in his latest book, “Scaling Up: How a Few Companies Make it…and Why the Rest Don’t,”

Core Values are the rules and boundaries that define the company’s culture and personality, and provide a final “Should/Shouldn’t” test for all the behaviors and decisions by everyone in the firm.

In my experience coaching hundreds of leaders of growing companies, I find that a common mistake leaders make is thinking they have Core Values, when really they don’t. Or perhaps they have them, but either have not clearly defined them or are not properly using them. They will often mistake attributes—like integrity—for Core Values. Another mistake is thinking a goal—increasing profits by 25% this year—is a Core Value.

In reality, Core Values have a specific set of properties that enable leaders to more effectively guide employees to fulfilling the company’s vision for success. Core Values are rarely single words, but most often phrases, such as “Do The Right Thing,” or “Be About It.” Single attributes, like integrity, perseverance, or frugality may be excellent attributes, but they are subjective and are difficult to put to the test on a regular, well-defined basis. Attempting to adopt such attributes as Core Values is simply a challenge.

Being able to put your company’s Core Values to the test is essential, especially for growing companies trying to scale up. Storytelling is one vital method of testing and reinforcing Core Values. Can employees recite stories where Core Values are exemplified in reality? Let’s use the example of “Customer service above-and-beyond the call of duty” as an example. This Core Value is actually one employees of Wynn Las Vegas are expected to learn, love and live. Therefore, in the job interview process, candidates are asked to recount a time in their careers when they provided customer service that went beyond the call of duty. At the end of one such interview, a current employee gave his own story. As a bellman, he was showing a couple to their room when the wife panicked. They had forgotten her husband’s medication and would have to return home. The bellman calmly asked where they lived. In a fortunate coincidence, they lived in the same town, four hours away, as the bellman’s cousin. He then asked if anyone was at their home. The wife told him that their live-in housekeeper was there. The bellman arranged for his cousin to pick up the medication and drive it to the couple at the hotel. Their vacation was saved.

This example, though extreme, definitely proves the company’s Core Value is not just something employees aspire to, but they actually practice it. Legendary stories like this make a company’s Core Values less ambiguous or cryptic. Core Values—and stories exemplifying them—provide reinforcement and assistance in the decision-making process.

Simply stating, “Integrity is a Core Value of our company,” does not work because of its subjective nature. Asking employees or candidates to recount a time they acted with integrity will likely elicit a variety of answers that have little to do with any company values and more to do with each individual’s experience of integrity. One person might think that he acted with integrity every time he didn’t steal from the company. Another employee might think telling the customer what she really thought of the company’s product is acting with integrity. Yet another might say coming into work on a weekend is acting with integrity. In any event, none of these examples provide insight as to the company’s vision or essential rules.

By taking the time and effort to discover and define your Core Values, you empower employees to act on the company’s behalf and essentially practice what you preach. A solid set of a handful of Core Values will guide employees in their daily endeavors and decision-making processes rather than careening out-of-control like a car traveling downhill with no brakes. Core Values are to be lived and reinforced daily. Otherwise all you have is platitudes and wishful thinking.

I am fortunate to have facilitated many sessions while executives discover their Core Values. As an executive coach, it is very rewarding to see people find the phrases that will capture the behavior that will propel their businesses toward optimal growth and ultimate freedom.

To read more about David Chavez click here

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