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The Talent Revolution Episode 11

Why Company Values Should be Discovered, Not Designed

August 10th, 2021 1 minute read
Remember the company values your organization put on the wall somewhere? Hopefully you do, but the odds are that you don’t.

Studies show that most employees don’t know what their company’s core values are. 

That’s a problem Debra Corey is working to correct with her latest book, Bringing Your Values Out to Play. Many organizations struggle to define their values, but it’s essential to get them right—and not just because companies “should” have them.

Debra is the founder and Chief Pay It Forward Solutions Officer at DebCo. Her company operates from two clearly defined values, even though she’s the only employee. 

That’s because values aren’t a fluffy team-building exercise. They’re a business tool.

“During the pandemic, if I hadn’t had those values, I would have felt lost,” she told me. “I was thinking, where do I go next? And I brought my values out. My goals are to open the door to possibilities and to create magic. How can I do that in a different way?”

Debra has always been a natural at challenging the status quo, but she credits her Build It co-author Glenn Elliott with “flipping the big switch” in how she thought about her corporate work. “It’s not just about being different. It’s being different in a strategic and meaningful way,” she says.

Debra joined us for this week’s episode of The Talent Revolution to discuss the right way for companies to make their values genuine, unique, and impactful. 

Values should be discovered, not designed

If your company selected values because you “had to” have them, you’re making a classic mistake—and you probably picked the wrong ones. 

Company values only matter if they are unique and meaningful. Could an employee look at your list of values and recognize the company behind them? If the answer’s no, your values aren’t unique or meaningful enough to be truly important.

And the impact of values extends beyond your current company roster. Prospective candidates look at values when they apply for jobs, so values serve double-duty in recruitment as an employer branding tool and a way to repel the wrong candidates. Debra shared that when new hires are made despite a conflict with company values, they’re almost always a bad fit. 

Everyone should know their company values for two main reasons: to make sure they’re in the right place, and to make the right decisions for the business.

That’s why values should be discovered, not designed. Your values aren’t something you create out of thin air. They’re already intrinsic to you, a part of your organizational DNA. They reflect the things you already say, do, and believe. 

How to make your company values valuable

Debra shared a ton of insight on how organizations can get the most benefit from their core values. 

Here are a few key takeaways:

  • If you don’t have them, get them. Values help you deliver on your company mission and make decisions. As Valve’s leaked employee handbook puts it, they’re about “knowing what to do when no one’s there telling you what to do.” No matter how large or small an organization might be, values are an essential North Star to keep you oriented toward decisions that align with your goals. Every employee—from interns to the CEO—should make decisions with values as their barometer.
  • Values are a team exercise. They shouldn’t be a mirror of the CEO’s behaviors. Just as an organization is more than the sum of its parts, its core values should be, too. Debra talks about the “iceberg of ignorance”: 100% of problems are known at the most junior level, and only 5% are known at the most senior. “Most of my good ideas aren’t even my ideas,” says Debra. In other words, don’t neglect the value of collective insight. 
  • If you’re stuck, steal something. It can be hard to brainstorm values from scratch. If another company’s values resonate with you, use them as a starting point for your own. Just make sure to put them in your own words. Values like “put the customer first” or “be kind” aren’t particularly unique or meaningful. Think carefully about what your values mean for your organization and what kinds of behaviors support them. 
  • There is no perfect number of values. As Debra puts it, “What can your employees remember?” Most organizations have four or five.  Zappos has ten. They can’t get rid of any without compromising their mission and purpose, so ten is the right number for them. When you get to a point where you can’t take anything away without eliminating something critical to your business, you’ve found your sweet spot.
  • Incorporate your values in every employee touchpoint. Once you’ve defined your values, use them everywhere. Put them on the talent acquisition page of your website. Create a handbook for new employees illustrating how to live your values. (Reward Gateway has a great example.) Embroider them on pillows. Debra calls these “value memory moments,” or simple places to incorporate your values into everyday life. The goal is for people to not only remember them, but internalize them.
  • It’s okay to change them. Debra loves storytelling, and she shared the story of a startup that initially held the value: “own it.” People were meant to take jobs and run with them, without waiting on approval or permission. But as the organization grew, that ethos got counterproductive. “Own it” was replaced by a value around collaboration and partnership. Debra suggests changing the behaviors behind your values before you change the fundamental company values themselves—but your values might change as your company does, and that’s okay.

We’ve only scratched the surface on company values, so we’re giving away 25 free copies of Debra’s book, Bringing Your Values Out to Play: A Playbook on Company Values. We’re also giving away one DIY Values Toolkit, to help you discover your own set of company values. Email for a chance to win. Make sure to include your name and physical mailing address so we know where to send it! 

Join us each week for more tales from the trenches and best-practice people guidance.

About the author
Tom Hacquoil
Tom Hacquoil
Tom is the CEO at Pinpoint and he's passionate about building world-class teams.

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