Four Rules to Develop Core Values

June 26, 2018

When done right, strong core values can increase productivity, help guide decision making and boost employee morale. While it may be tempting to steal some core values from companies who are nailing it, they must be authentic to your culture and business.

So how do you go about developing values that make a difference?

Before beginning the process, you need to determine who will be involved. Depending on the size of the organization, the person leading the discussion may be different.

“Values can be driven from the top down or the bottom up, but I think in a lot of companies it’s a little bit of both because owners or founders have some real core values that are important to them and often times other employees can round out that group,” said Bob Grubb, chief executive officer of Alliant National Title Insurance Co.

If a company has a small team, employees may be involved directly in the creation of the values. Other scenarios may include working with other department managers.

“Above all, make sure the people you involve are on the same page,” Grubb said. “They should be committed to drafting and implementing values that are expectations for everyone at the company. They should be willing to brainstorm and compromise and agree on a set of values that will be foundational to the company going forward.”

Brainstorming begins after selecting who will participate. It’s important to schedule a meeting several days in advance to let participants prepare and develop ideas. A few meetings can work well with a small group focused on articulating their values. A series of meetings with time in between to digest the discussion works better for larger groups or companies with multiple locations.

“I think most people would find that there’s a commonality between core personal values that are likely to align with company values,” Grubb said. “In the meeting, you can have people identify their values, what values are shared, what values the company currently shows and what values should be emphasized.”

The idea is to let ideas flow freely and to hone in on what is most important for the company. After the brainstorming, ideas should be combined with similar ones to narrow the list. Once a list is finalized, define each value. As an example, one of the common themes may marinate around the idea of having an “ownership mentality.”

“You want to make employees feel like they can make good decisions on the fly while they are interacting on the front line with customers without constant supervision,” Grubb said. “A conversation is needed to understand how you can make them feel that they can do that. Having an ‘ownership mentality’ value will take additional discussion.”

The next thing to address is framing the values to the company culture. By explaining the values in a way that is relatable and inspiring may help employees be more excited about the vision for the company. Some organizations may prefer more formal lingo, while others may prefer a more casual style.

“You may have one company that uses words such as ‘flexibility’ or ‘agility,” while others may use phrases such as ‘Roll With the Punches,” Grubb added. “It’s important to figure out in your organization if you prefer them to be simple, clear and easy to remember, slang oriented so they’re easier to grasp or more formal. Many companies like to inject humor into their values”

Once done with this step, companies should take stock of what they’ve developed and evaluate them as a whole. Grubb suggested getting feedback from others that weren’t part of the development or customers that have worked with the company for a long period of time.

“The idea is to look at the list and ask if they encompass the most important aspects of what you want for the company, not just for today, but for the future,” Grubb said. “Are they ideas that you’re really willing to hold your employees—and yourself—to?” Grubb added. “Values work best if they are the ideas that are going to push you and your team forward to the shared result you want to create.”

Values inform culture and provide fence posts within a culture. Grubb said values need refined over time. He said Alliant National Title reviews its values during the annual planning process.

“It’s not a set-it-and-forget-it mechanism,” Grubb said. “Values that are lived guide the organization over time and its natural to refine them.”

Here are four rules to help companies build a stronger culture:

Rule 1: Make Values and Culture a Priority

It isn’t sufficient just to develop values, frame them and hang the phrases on the wall. A common expression is that you need to “own it” to help ensure all employees want to embrace the values.

“Your culture becomes job one,” said Eric Schneider, title group manager for Lakeside Title Co. “It's a mindset that requires teamwork and has to impact your customers. You need to have a clear, guiding purpose and as much passion and conviction about it as the first time you sat down and discussed it.”

Employees need to be inspired to act with clarity toward the company’s business goals and values, and ensure you’re trusting and empowering people to set up programs and infrastructure to support those goals and values.

“High-performance cultures don’t happen organically—they’re carefully designed, architected and built with intention,” Schneider said. “It’s your intention. Your own company’s intention. Your employees’ intention. It’s something that’s particular to you.

Rule 2: Talk About It—Constantly

The concept of values must be constantly discussed with co-workers. Schneider said it’s important to get feedback and have a good sense of peoples’ attitude in the office.

“You need to talk to other people—not just to executives or human resources—but to middle management because they are probably the biggest group that actually shapes culture because they have access to upper management and those on the front line,” Schneider said.

It's not about asking, "Is this a fun place to work?" rather it’s about knowing the temperature of the different groups in a company. The marketing department might have a completely different subculture than the closing department or IT people.

“You need to discover how the goals of each individual directly tie into the overall performance goals of the organization,” Schneider said, adding that it’s important to make sure this alignment is recognized and understood by everyone.

Rule 3: Train, Evaluate, Repeat

Companies can expect culture to simply be created, added to the employee handbook and expect good things to happen.

Cynthia Blair, founding member of Blair Cato Pickren Casterline LLC, said a good way of ingraining culture with staff is to set up an engagement survey. This is an easy way to dive into this assessment. Questions can ask:

  • How happy do team members feel about coming to work every day?
  • What things excite them most?
  • What could improve their overall happiness at work?

“These are good considerations for making culture adjustments if needed,” Blair said.

Senior leadership and management are typically an organization’s culture beacons. If they don't respect and uphold the company culture, neither will the rest of the staff.

“Your team will adopt whatever values the senior leadership projects, no matter what you want them to have,” Blair said. “That's why it's so important to train your leaders and managers on your culture.”

Setting a plan for accountability, team-building, training and development will help changes to the company subculture take root within six months. Within 12 to 24 months, a company should see overall changes to internal recruiting, brand and hopefully attrition rates.

Rule 4: Build Values Into Your Hiring

The final rule is to build your values into the hiring process. Blair said companies should hire people who live by the core values “you want your culture to embody.” Next, leadership must authentically exemplify the core values a company promotes.

“You should take an honest assessment of your onboarding process and understand if it communicates the company values, as well as promote and support them,” Blair said. “So often we have an urgent need to fill a position, there’s the thought that it’s better to hire a warm body than nobody. But if you want your culture to be reflective of your company, you’ve got to build values into your hiring process.”  

Contact ALTA at 202-296-3671 or