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Are Core Values Really Core?

Create Values That Are Distinctive to Who You Are

Most businesses have them. They usually come hand-in-hand with the company’s mission and vision. They are the guiding principles of the organization that help shape behavior within the organization and the way it engages with its customers. They are the corporate values that underpin the brand. Just having corporate values, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are meaningful, relevant, honest or distinctive.

In a study of Core Values conducted by Booz Allen Hamilton and The Aspen Institute across 365 companies in 30 countries, it found that of those companies surveyed:

90 percent identified ethical behavior as a core value

It’s hard to argue that ethics would not be on a list of values to adhere to. A commitment to customers and employees, trust, respect and excellence are also great values that few would debate. As proof, these kind of values appeared in over 75 percent of the companies in the Booze Allen Hamilton and Aspen Institute survey. Are these really core values or simply values that everyone has no argument with? Are they too generic to be meaningful? They have a place, but perhaps not as a core value. Understanding that different types of values meet different objectives can be reconciled through a three-tier values framework:

Universal Values are those values that just about everyone can agree would be good for any kind of organization.

Trust, honesty, accountability, responsibility, reliability, among others, are all values that would engender positive behavior with any enterprise. They are universal — equally applicable to almost any organization. They are simply table stakes for good business practices.

Industry Values are those values that are generally common across an industry segment or segments that have similar considerations.

A commitment to safety might be shared by the automotive and airline industry while technology companies would likely ascribe to innovation and precision. Industry values are often a reflection of the corporate mission and important to ensuring that a company in that segment is a credible and relevant player.

Core Values are those values that are unique and special to the organization.

They serve to guide a culture that is distinctive to the company. The core values are what shape the work environment, creating an atmosphere that reflects what the organization aspires to be, a reinforcement of and direct connection to the vision. A company whose vision is about advancing environmental change for good might have values that include working in harmony with nature, thereby connecting a vision to core values in a distinctive way.

Understanding a core values framework will help ensure that the values you ultimately define as core are values that are distinctive and meaningful to your organization.

It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.