August 31, 2022

How to write your company's core values

Because core values are more than a list of inspirational words painted on an office wall

by

Elyse Ash

Core values get a bad rap. At best, they can seem cheesy and forced. At worst, they can feel disingenuous and cringe.

But they don’t have to be; in fact, they shouldn’t be.

In defense of core values

Personally, I’m a bit of a sucker for core values. When I founded my company, Fruitful Fertility, I started writing my company’s core values before I hired a single employee.

Why? When you’re starting a company from scratch, it’s essential to differentiate yourself from your business. And because you’re the one writing the emails, posting to social media and creating pitch decks, your voice is oftentimes synonymous with the voice of the company. But as your company grows and scales, as you listen to customers, iterate and build the brand, you realize that your company is NOT you. 

So who is the company and what does it care about?

What are core values?

According to Gino Wickman’s book Traction, core values are defined as:

“The small set of vital and timeless guiding principles for your company.”

They define the company’s culture and who it truly is. Core values are clear. Concise. Limited to 3–7 values. And evergreen.

Companies can then hire, fire, review, reward and recognize people based on how they embody those specific core values.

Photo of a small child reading handwritten words on an outdoor wall that read, "Believe in yourself."

Why are core values useful?

Core values can be extremely valuable to leaders, employees, users, investors, and the general public. They help you understand what the company cares about and why it exists. Articulating and sharing your core values can also help with:

  • Hiring, reviewing and rewarding folks who share your vision and values
  • Holding yourself accountable
  • Differentiating yourself from competitors
  • Attracting and retaining customers (63% of consumers say they want to buy products and services from companies that have a purpose that resonates with their belief system)
  • Selecting vendors and making other important business decisions

How to discover your core values

First off, notice how I wrote “discover” your core values and not “write” them.

Your core values should be things your company already cares about, not things that you aspire to be one day or think you should be.

Here’s a great process (and the one we used at Cloudburst) for discovering the values your company already holds:

  1. Gather your leadership team - Set aside dedicated time to meet. Make sure you tell everyone in advance that the purpose of the meeting is to discover (or rethink) the company’s core values.
  2. Ask the team to determine the highest performing 3-5 employees - Ask the room who they think the highest performing, most valuable employees are. Write their names on a whiteboard so everyone can see them.
  3. List the adjectives that describe these employees - Next to the employee names, write a list of all the characteristics that make these employees so valuable and helpful. Maybe they’re naturally curious, very hardworking or fun to be around. Maybe they’re passionate, creative or innovative. Whatever qualities they have, make sure you capture them all.
  4. Review the list of adjectives with a lens towards possible company core values - Now scan the list and see which items can be combined (e.g. hardworking and strong work ethic are pretty much the same thing, so collapse those into one characteristic). Also see if any characteristics don’t make sense for the company as a whole and should be killed automatically. Slowly narrow down the list until only 3-7 true core values remain.
  5. Assign someone on the leadership team to finesse the language - At the end of the meeting, assign someone the task of finessing the language around each of the agreed upon core values. Let them work their copy magic, then come back later (or review over Slack/Google Docs) to share the updated, more formalized language.
  6. Share the core values internally - It’s important for the leadership of the company to all agree on the core values, but it’s also important for the employees to vibe-check them too. Share them with the company. Listen to feedback (if you've been honest with yourselves, there shouldn't be anything wildly misaligned).
  7. Integrate the core values into your processes - Add the core values to part of your formal hiring, firing, promotion and review processes. Every employee should be displaying your company’s core values *most* of the time. If they’re not, it might be an indicator that they’re not a great fit.

Cloudburst’s core values

The leadership team at Cloudburst recently revamped our own core values following the process above. After days of discussion and writing (and rewriting), these are the core values we committed to and rolled out to the full Cloudburst team.

Authenticity is sacred. We’re fully human. We show up that way every day–exactly who we are and how we are. Our humanity makes us a stronger, better team. Our doors are open; our minds are too. Our value is inherent; and we are welcome here.

The entrepreneurial spirit lives in all of us. We know the tenacity and grit it takes to figure it out and bring a product to life. Making dreams happen is energizing and a point of pride for us.

Makers are magic. Creators, makers, doers by nature, we are hungry to learn and driven to experiment. We are thought leaders, as well as continuously drawn to new information. With that, our toolbox is ever-expanding. Our curiosity is endless.

Success is better together. We believe that shared stakes equal shared success. Investing in our work together is how we thrive–whether that investment is financial or intellectual, based on effort or based on time, we all do better when we all do better.

Our work matters. Making a genuine impact matters to us. By offering our time, energy and skills to our community–at work and in the world–we make a difference. We show up. We lean in. We share. We give back. We are the change we want to see wherever we are.

Dos + don'ts of writing core values

DO:

  • Make sure your core values are true to who you really are, not who you want to be or who you think you should be
  • Rush through this exercise; be methodical and make sure everyone on your team is aligned on the vision
  • Remind the team of the values often
  • Hire, promote, review and fire people based on the core values

DON’T:

  • Change your values every 6 months; stick with them
  • Create too many core values (3-7 are more than enough)
  • Expect your team to magically memorize and internalize them
  • Feel like each value can only be one word; write them in complete sentences or using a framework like “We believe…” if that helps.

Articulating what you stand for can help you get more focused on the decisions you make, the opportunities you pursue and perhaps most importantly, the goals you prioritize. This makes writing your company’s core values is an incredibly powerful exercise.

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Elyse Ash is a marketer, creative, writer, speaker, founder and loud laugher. In her free time she enjoys playing with her kiddos, going to new restaurants, reading and pretending she’s into yoga.