Values guide actions that propel our lives. A strong, clearly defined set of values helps individuals and groups gain clarity in decisions and directions. As business visionary Simon Sinek says, it’s the “Why” that matters for companies. Why do we do what we do? Stated differently, “What do we value?”.
I teach a class in Strategic Planning; the syllabus begins the planning with three foundational reference points. Values, Vision, and Mission. The starting point for a company’s exercise of self-identification is understanding its Values. Vision is an aspirational expression of these values, and Mission describes an execution strategy. Thus, Values are the starting point of an organization’s “Why?”.
We recently conducted our own valuation analysis, which we modeled from a “Discernment” program at my church that helps people in transition to identify new career paths. Here's how it works: the support team needs to understand the candidate’s values before offering ideas or making recommendations. So before meeting with the support group, the candidate ponders a list of top ‘values. (see our list at the bottom of this article). From a list of 50 values, the candidate must discard 35 to select the top 15, no easy task, requiring contemplation and reflection. Once these top 15 have been identified, he or she must prioritize just the top ten, removing five. Then, once more, the list is culled to just the top five. These become the core values that most define the candidate. It's a solid starting point.
For our company discernment, three leaders went through this process. Then we decided to get a pulse on the rest of our staff and invited everyone: take 50 values down to 15, to 10, to 5. While this was a voluntary exercise, every employee participated.
Because we’re nearly 20 people, we needed to weigh the values in a way that allowed for breadth of ideas, while recognizing leadership's influence. For breadth, we included everyone's top ten values, but assigned a double value to their top five choices. Thus, if “Integrity” was #2 and “Giving” was #7, integrity got twice the weight of giving. To recognize that leadership drives strategic decisions in our company, we double-weighted three company leaders' results. Interestingly, most of our stated values were consistent between leadership and the other employees. Evidently, we already have a culture that reflects management’s – and employees’ – core values.
Here’s the result of our internal exercise, in order:
Gordon Atlantic Insurance Top Values:
- Family – We are a family-oriented business, for employees, and for customers.
- Integrity – It is our brand, our reputation; who we are as people.
- Excellence – We strive to become better, all the time.
- Leadership – in our fields of specialty, and in taking responsibility for our own lives.
- Community – We stay closely connected to where we live and work.
- Giving – We try to give something of ourselves to others.
- Lifetime Learning – A value combining Growth and Education.
A few observations about the data:
- Education and Growth; both had a strong presence on our list, so we combined and included under Lifetime Learning, a reasonable consolidation of these two.
- Happiness, Health, and Independence also scored high, so we acknowledge these in internal discussions, remembering that these values are 'Top 5' important to several of us.
- The process of removing many values we hold dearly to get from 50 to 15, is a valuable exercise in itself, especially at the margins, with those closest to the cut-off.
This has become useful in much decision making: We used to struggle with how to handle certain holidays, the day after Thanksgiving a typical example. Recognizing how much we value family, the decision to close the day after Thanksgiving became easy, as this is a day when most of us can enjoy time with our families. With Lifetime Learning a top value, we are quick to approve education expenses for all our employees, all year long. Integrity keeps our brand strong, and helps us be more effective when negotiating with underwriters; because they trust us. (Bonus: This one also helps us sleep at night.)
We found that this exercise provides guidance for many decisions; it's different for every organization. But it's a terrific process to develop self-awareness and clarity for any organization.
Below is the list of 50 values we all used for starting this exercise: