How to give your company powerful core values

Rebecca Caruso Written by
Rebecca Caruso

Some companies are known for their strong core values, but how did they come about? Is there a recipe to follow? Are there secret steps to success?

Let’s take lingerie and swimwear brand Aerie as an example. It is one of the two lifestyle brands owned by American Eagle Outfitters Inc which was founded in 1977 and has over 1,000 stores and 40,000 associates worldwide. Its main values are: people, integrity, passion, innovation and teamwork and has adopted the tagline “HONEST. FUN. RELAXED. SEXY. NATURAL. STRONG. REAL.”

This lingerie company appeals to 15-25-year olds by preaching “the real you is sexy” and fighting against online retouching of their models. How did they come up with this?

If there are any three things to take away from this is:

  1. Values are integral to a company’s mission and purpose;
  2. They must represent what the company stands for;
  3. They must be realised in practice, in what the organisation actually does (and how the people act!)

At the foundation of the company, should be its mission. ‘The real you is sexy’ screams integrity, passion and people. This mission of celebrating the individual’s beauty, is one that trickles in to the company’s core values. All of them work in symbiosis to sustain the mission.

Another brand – Nike – has values of performance, authenticity, and innovation which all sustain its mission to expand human potential. It works with specific materials to maximise performance, and intimately selects it campaign athletes to reflect authenticity (e.g. Colin Kaepernick). Depending on what your company goal is, you should work to introduce an environment that is largely a reflection of the morals that can support the overarching mission.

The core values should be intimately related to the mission and the vision of the company but should not be a re-iteration of the other two. All three are different and work to sustain one another. The values are the non-negotiable behaviours you want demonstrated.

It is important to mention that a company’s identity can broadly be attributed to their beginning. The behaviours of the employees, their personalities, and the culture of the company can quite quickly be sussed out. Humans respond to the environment they are placed in, and it becomes quite easy to spot how they fit into a company based on the general tone of the other people.

Consolidating the behaviours you value in your workplace will then facilitate the next step: ask these people what they value in the company, and what they want to see more of. Consult the people that are actually making the company.

Hosting strategy sessions and workshops is important to develop a list of shared values by asking people. Ask them:

  • What are 5 values that define us as a team?
  • What is non-negotiable behaviour?

Collect their ideas, identify the broad values and discuss the importance of each one. It will help streamline not only the values everyone deems important and noticeable, but which to prioritise.

If they value and embody personability, then that should be something reflected in how you conduct your business: if you want all of you projects collaborated on by a number of people, teamwork could be a good value to instil in the newcomers, and to sell to the clients. The core values should be blossoming beliefs that all of your co-workers agree with, embody, and would want to see more of.

As a side-note, you should have 3-7 values, and they should be quippy. If you want to “conduct our business by working as a team and collaborating on single projects at a time”, don’t say that. Your values can be collaboration (or teamwork), and creativity. Leave the explanation simply as that: an explanation. When someone reads the value as a word, they get much more out of it.

Then, ask yourself (and everyone around you) questions. How do you celebrate as a company? What is inappropriate? How should staff meetings be conducted? What is the dress code? Is it a personal affair, where everyone should be friends? Or should people treat one another professionally? Envisioning scenarios and the everyday life of the company can help draw out the priorities of your values. Maybe don’t be strict or micro-managing if you want a light and easy-going environment, maybe don’t fire people for making mistakes if you want to breed a culture of cooperation and kindness.

You need to live your core values. It is one thing to introduce and ingrain them: another thing to live and conduct your business aligned with them. If you don’t live them, consider changing them.

Your values should be latent. In acting as facilitators of your mission, they must also be reflective of the tone of the company you have built. Talk to your people, keep them in the loop, and sometimes some values may need tweaking or refining. That’s okay. A company’s fluidity means there is scope for change and progression, and it means you’re listening to the people who are conducting the business. They should be valued and listened to. These values should also be in how you speak to clients, and how you sell yourself. If you serve muffins in the morning for your employees, serve them to potential clients. Equally, it can determine a client-base by defining incompatibilities between your values and theirs. If you value a culture of collaboration and involvement, it may not be a good fit when someone only wants a senior manager handling their project. Which is okay!

If your company is big enough, and if you want to stop cherry-picking every person who applies for a job with you (because, hopefully, so many will be), be specific in your interview approach. Ask questions that reflect your core values. For example, if one of your values is innovation, ask what their favourite gadget is and why it is unique from other products.

Finally: brand bibles! Create one, present one and make it engaging. This will teach new employees not only about your image and presentation, but what you stand for, what you wish to achieve, and why. It’s usually quite easy to see who will be a good fit, but simply ingraining your values into those wanting to work for you will help them carry out the mission with a clear way on how to do it.