The first time I ever heard about core values was in 2014 when I read a book by Tony Hsieh called Delivering Happiness.
As a general rule, I’m not a fan of self-help business books. Call me old fashioned, but I think too many people think they can educate themselves about business without actually attending the school of hard knocks.
However, skepticism aside, the fact was that our company was having an identity crisis and I was desperate for a solution.
At the time our company was suffering from what millions of businesses suffer from—unhappiness (which is probably why I bought the book). I simply didn’t enjoy going to work. I didn’t like the vibe when I got there, I didn’t like some of the clients, I didn’t like the way we were doing things, and, I felt at odds with my business partner. We weren’t going in the same direction.
The two of us attended what we dubbed ‘marriage counselling’ which was basically a weekly business coaching session. Three hours each week we would meet, uninterrupted, and discuss obstacles and the direction of the company.
It was sometime during this process that the two of us had a downright Oprah worthy ‘a-ha’ moment. We looked at each other and said “This is our company, if we don’t like it, we alone have the power to shape it into what we want it to be.”
Well why didn’t we think of that before?
Like a lot of you, we had spent so much time working in the business that we neglected the bigger picture of working on our own business. It was time to get our mojo back. We sat down and asked ourselves what was important to us.
Money aside, what did we want to see within our company? What type of company did we want to be? Who were we? And how could we bring our own personalities into the company?
You’d think it would be easy to identify ten things that were our core beliefs, but it took a lot of soul searching, and if we’re being honest here, a lot of wine. Some of the values in Tony’s book really spoke to us, so we decided to keep them, adding or changing them to things that were unique to just us.
And you know what started to happen? As we wrote down the things that were most important to us, we started to realize that the people we had surrounded ourselves with didn’t share our values.
The company was having an identity crisis because we had never given it an identity. And because of the unclarity, we had inadvertently created a company culture of people who did not share our values. Not only that, but we had attracted some clients of the same ilk (I’ve always wanted to use ilk in a sentence).
That’s when shit got real.
Writing them down was one thing. Leading with them required us to have a totally different mindset. One that we would have to hire and fire by. Employees with negative attitudes or poor work ethics would have to go, that wasn’t who we were (duh, should have figured out that one sooner).
Clients who didn’t value our work and our experience, they would get the axe. Suppliers who didn’t believe in delivering the best ideas, they too would be gone. The company, OUR company, would become an extension of who we were. It took us nearly two years to fully integrate our core values throughout our company.
The snowball effect.
Once we made the conscious decision to live by our values, amazing things started to happen. We began to attract employees and clients who shared our same values. I started to enjoy coming to work again. My business partner and I were on the same page, and even excited to infuse more of our personalities into the company.
We both love wine, so why not incorporate that in a fun way into our business? I’m a cheeky one (in case you haven’t noticed), so we infused my sassy attitude into our brand voice and copy. We cherish friendships and family, so we began to invite employees to our home for barbecues and team outings.
We bought an espresso machine, got rugs and couches, we wanted our office to be more like home. This was after all, where we were all spending 8-10 hours of our day.
Have we succeeded?
Not all days are perfect, after all, it’s life. But our core values have helped us make decisions, and have become the core of our company. We are no longer having an identity crisis. Our employees even take us to task over our core values, we hear things like “should we be doing this, it kind of goes against our core values.”
I now make an annual new year speech, in which we invite employees who aren’t on board with our core values and our direction, to kindly ‘get off the bus’ and remove themselves from the company. And in case you are wondering, I have indeed had a couple people take me up on this offer. We are a better, happier, more productive company with a group of people who share our same values than we were before them. So what does that say? Hell yes, we’ve succeeded.
Lessons learned along the way.
The first thing I learned is that identifying your core values is a process, and one that can’t be done in an hour, so allocate some ‘me time’ for this activity. You will need to sit down and make a list of the things that are important to you. Start with crazy, random ideas, and then start to narrow those down to a few that you absolutely can’t live without.
The second thing I learned is that you can’t lie. I mean, who are you, really? You are going to have to get all zen with yourself and be honest about who you are. For example, if you just absolutely won’t accept negative attitudes, add it in your values. There was one that we flat out stole (aka plagiarized) from Tony Hsieh’s because we loved it so much: Create fun and a little weirdness. We are fun and a little weird, and we wanted a team like that too, it fit us perfectly.
The third thing I learned is that not everyone is going to like your values. Some people won’t agree with them, and others will find that they just don’t jive with some of them. And you know what, that’s okay. Your company needs to reflect who you are, and trust me, not everyone likes you either. Well, they all like me, but you know, I’m just perfect like that (HAH). But really, stick by what you believe, whether people like it or not. If they aren’t down with who you are, they probably aren’t right for your company either.
The last lesson I learned is that living up to these magical core values is not an overnight thing (much to my impatient dismay). It takes time to integrate your values throughout your company and to assemble a team behind you who believe in your values. The key here is not to move quickly, but to stand strong for what you believe. Make one small change each day that moves you in the direction of your values.
Core values might not be for everyone, I know lots of companies who are very profitable without them. But they were right for me and my business partner. They are my guiding principles, and remind me that this company isn’t just a place to make money, it’s an extension of who I am. Each of our ten company values describe me. And now, they describe others who work here, too. If that’s not some powerful incentive to be happy and passionate about our jobs, I don’t know what is. Want to know who I am? Come read our values.
Resources to help you write your core values.