Core Values: Say What?

Core Values: Say What?

By Robert Griffard

Beliefs That Guide Actions  

Core values defined simply are the basic beliefs which guide every individual’s actions, whether at work or at leisure. Like individuals, organizations too have core values which help them set apart their culture and influence their strategy for reaching common goals. For an organization, core values can help determine the key priorities, support or even help create a vision, and build policies and practices that uphold them. In a sense, core values form the soul of the company – its principles, beliefs, and philosophy. This is why core values are considered a peek into the organizational culture.  Unfortunately, many organizations only attend to their technical expertise while ignoring their underlying capabilities that can drive a sustained competitive advantage. 

Core Values Help Decision Making

If customer delight is a core value, consistent low rankings of customer feedback about any issue needs immediate attention.

  • Educating customers. Core values can tell customers and other stakeholders what to expect from a company.  Proclaiming a core value, however, needs to be backed up by evidence. 
  • Building awareness among employees about what the company aspires for and creating a positive and enabling culture to do so.
  • Guiding managerial action in times of confusion and struggles. When offered an alternative refrigerant technology to CFCs, a handful companies agreed to adopt Greenfreeze despite the huge costs of revamping their production and marketing processes. Such a decision was made easier by a core value of sustainable and green operations.

Why do some organizations not state their core values? 

This missed opportunity in corporate cultural evolution is perhaps because distilling what a company stands for in a few keywords is not an easy task. It may not be easy, but it definitely is essential. The first step in identifying the core values is the reflection of whether they need to be identified or created. If you feel your organizational culture is positive and enabling, identify what makes it so. If you feel it needs amendment, then identify why, and mark that as a core value. In this way, you will have a set of guiding posts of what needs to be changed to achieve your objectives. If you do not know your objectives, then the core values cannot succeed. 

Identification (or Creation) of Core Values 

Support is needed by both HR and the line managers. The HR managers perform the role of enabler by:

  • Resourcing the right candidates who share core values and have demonstrated them in the past or at least shown an interest in doing so in the future.
  • Modifying HR policies of onboarding, learning and development, and performance and reward management to demonstrate the core values in action. If employee focus is a core value, then career development should be a major HR policy. Any core values that remain unsupported in practice are empty baggage.
  • Enabling the demonstration of core values in practice. If employees perform volunteering in line with “social responsibility” then some form of recognition (not necessarily financial) is needed.

Line managers make sure that the core values are embodied in the company operations. With their support, the core values of “quality focus”, “innovation”, and “customer focus” can be reached in practice. In fact, the identification of core values is only possible by involving the line managers in the process and asking them what they like to see in their workers or what is needed. Like the organizational vision, core values are also best approached in a collaborative framework that can make them universally accepted and used. 

Many managers scout for core values by looking for them on the internet. A number of links provide a “comprehensive” list of core values for leaders to choose for their companies. But can this method of copy paste really work? Sure it can yield a list of five desirable values to be demonstrated on billboards and the company website, but the values remain empty and unfulfilled. 


What is needed is a collaborative, brainstorming exercise that not only identifies the core values; it also brings the gaps in working practices out in the open. Ask your line managers and employees to come up with their own lists of core values that they feel should be part of the company. Conduct group exercises with your main managers to identify the final list of values. It is important that the final list really does represent the company and is not the most popular or most cited value. This precaution will avoid popular and empty core values from being included which may not inspire people. 

An important consideration is that each core value should be defined well. Keeping five keywords may be a good idea to remind all employees of the core values, but each of them should be able to explain their meaning in the same manner. 


The New Zealand firm James Wren & Co. 

“Three coats means three coats.”

James Wren & Co. are a high-quality painting contractor in existence for over a century in Dunedin. They distinguish themselves in a market driven by cost leadership through their core values. Managing Director Richard Daniell has explained his Core Value statement by stating:

“It is easy in this industry to get away with one less coat if you tint your sealer/primer coat, and many of our opposition are known for it. We know you can do it, too, but you end up with an inferior finish, so we choose not to take the shortcut approach, often to the detriment of securing a contract. It is core because we are prepared to miss out financially by not securing contracts; it is spoken virtually every day by either one of our shareholders, estimating staff, tradesmen, supervisors, or clients. Examples of it are given in every edition of our newsletter. We incorporate this Core Value in nearly every decision we make.”

This definition explains Wren’s commitment, espousal, and usage of core value and shows how each and every employee understands and practices it. If you join the company, you will know quality is not compromised here, if you hire them as contractors, you will expect quality. 

Ben & Jerry’s

  • Our Product Mission drives us to make fantastic ice cream—for its own sake.
  • Our Economic Mission asks us to manage our Company for sustainable financial growth.
  • Our Social Mission compels us to use our Company in innovative ways to make the world a better place.4


  1. Focus on the user and all else will follow.
  2. It’s best to do one thing really, really well.
  3. Fast is better than slow.
  4. Democracy on the web works.
  5. You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer.
  6. You can make money without doing evil.
  7. There’s always more information out there.
  8. The need for information crosses all borders.
  9. You can be serious without a suit.
  10. Great just isn’t good enough. 5

These core values not only explain the company objectives (Great just isn’t good enough) they also tell the employees what they can and cannot do. They don’t need to wear formal clothes but they do need to focus on the user. 

Risible Example

While working with a client to zero in on their core values and put them into a form that effectively demonstrates what the company truly values, I reviewed their many attempts to memorialize their beliefs. My client had many good values such as respect, teamwork, integrity, helping, trusting, etc. They even had defined each. Respect means not talking down; staying professional; listening; not throwing anyone under the bus.

As I pondered each I saw a theme: we do this and we do that. And the reason we do this and that is so we can effectively and efficiently take our product to market. The “we” here being the company and all of its employees. From that we came up with the following one-line value statement.

We, We, We all the way to Market

Given this value statement as the title of the company’s core values points out how interdependent all employees are and that they must rely on each other in order to be of value to their customers. Given the statement’s comical tone it is almost instantly memorable. A little further definition provides the greater meaning while still supporting the “we” theme. 

  • We respect each other.
  • We work together.
  • We do what we say.
  • We help our customers to achieve their business objectives.
  • We hire, invest in, and delegate to the best people.
  • We make significant contributions.
  • We innovate.
  • We talk openly.
  • We embrace change rapidly and with passion.
  • We lead.

We then sought to provide examples of each value. The examples came from the employees of the company as a demonstration of the value in order to present real life scenarios. The full package was made public so all employees could see the values and how they relate to their jobs and their interactions with everyone at the company. 

We respect each other.

  • Don’t talk down to employees.
  • Stay professional.
  • Listen.
  • Give honest feedback, up and down. 
  • Don’t throw anyone under the bus.

We work together.

  • We are a team.
  • We succeed together.
  • No single person is better than another.
  • Everyone contributes.

We do what we say.

  • We meet our commitments.
  • We do what is right.
  • We trust each other.

We help our customers to achieve their business objectives.

  • Ask customers about their business objectives.
  • How do our products and services fit with their objectives?
  • Can we help them visualize beyond their current objectives with our products and services?
  • Make them know that we only succeed if they succeed.

We hire, invest in, and delegate to the best people.

  • We, the team, hire great people.
  • We invest in our people’s development.
  • We trust employees to do the right thing.
  • We hire employees with a sense of humor.

We make significant contributions.

  • Solve the important problems.
  • Find out what the customers’ big problems are.
  • Learn quickly from problems.
  • Share the learning.
  • Increase the velocity of our execution.

We innovate.

  • Bring new and meaningful innovations to market.
  • Recognize the need for change.
  • Predict change.
  • We are constantly learning.
  • We are constantly improving every aspect of our business.

We talk openly.

  • Management and employees talk directly to each other.
  • Each listens and responds professionally.
  • We have a great working environment.
  • We share the news of our successes.
  • We share stories of Core Values in action.

We embrace change rapidly and with passion.

  • We know there will be change.
  • We do not fear change.
  • We welcome change so that we can grow and improve.

We lead.

  • We don’t wait for our competitors to set the direction.
  • We as a team move in the same direction at the same time and at the same speed.

Core Values – the Cohesion Factor

Core values tie a firm to its employees and make them both answerable to their clients and stakeholders. They are an essential management principle and can make your organization run smoothly.