Core Values are the Building Blocks of Company Culture

Part One of a Three Part Series on Developing a Strong Company Culture

Why do companies like Southwest Airlines, Apple®,, Whole Foods Market, and Google always top the lists of the best places to work? Is it because of their competitive compensation packages? Or an emphasis on open communication and teamwork? Maybe it’s the way their leadership teams strive to ensure each employee knows they are indispensable to the company’s overall success?

The answer is that it’s all of that … and much more.

Culture Begins with Core Values
Ultimately, what defines a company culture is the collective behavior of the people in the organization. The driving force behind that behavior is the basic building block of a company’s culture – its core values. Core values are personal, ethical, and ideological guidelines that set the standard for every aspect of business operations, from hiring to decision making to strategic planning.

Let’s break it down even further:

Core values are not:

  • One size fits all – just as every business is different, so are the goals and influences that define their individual values.
  • Slogans, catchphrases, or buzzwords – your core values must be engrained into the fabric of your organization. Not a passing trend.
  • Descriptions of the work you do – rather, they more effectively lay the foundation for how you do it.

Core values are:

  • Unique to your organization – defines why your business is different from others and guarantees a certain level of conduct and expectations.
  • Guidelines for decision making – simple and understandable, yet comprehensive enough to guide employees through a wide variety of everyday situations.
  • The foundation of company culture – fundamentally, your values need to integrate into every aspect of your business operations.

Defining Your Core Values is a Team Effort
This is not a one person job. Defining your core values should involve the entire company. From top to bottom, everyone in the organization is a stakeholder and deserves the opportunity to put in their two cents. It instills a sense of ownership and inspires each individual to strive to live up to the guiding principles they helped create.

Ask Probing Questions
Ask your team the following questions to help focus on the key elements that are absolutely essential to the success and longevity of the company. What do we do and how do we do it? How are we different from the competition? What unique services or value do we provide to our customers? What do we do best? Worst? Basically, you’re trying to break your business down to the key components and how they make an impact on the overall success of the company.

Put It into Words
Think about how you and your team answered the probing questions. Are there any consistent themes or ideas that emerged? Now is the time to put them into concise, action-oriented words.

As a team, try brainstorming a list of descriptive words based on the answers to the questions and discussions you’ve had so far. It may be helpful to create categories like words to describe our work ethic, words to describe our product, words to describe why our business is important, etc. At this point, take down everything that is said. There are no wrong answers here. The idea is to get everyone’s thoughts out in the open, no matter how obscure or off base it may seem.

So, for example, if your company builds cars and you identified that you strive to ensure your cars get better gas mileage than the competition, some words on your list may include: Efficient, Reliable, Focus on Quality, Environmentally Friendly, etc.

Narrow It Down
This is where you really start to close in on the key ideas that will become your core values. From the list of words, look for repeated words, phrases that mean the same thing, or any common themes and start to narrow the list down to the top 10-15. Have each of your employees think about the words that made the shortlist on their own and rank them from most to least important. You will likely see a few words and phrases emerge as the clear leaders.

Now you not only have a short list of key words and phrases describing the key fundamentals of your company, but because they played a role in defining it, you also have buy in from your workforce that the words accurately reflect the true core of your business culture.

At this point, it’s time for senior leadership to discuss the list of words/phrases and any additional feedback received to hone in on a final list of 3-5 core values. The final list of values may or may not be on the short list verbatim, but they do need to closely reflect the major ideas that emerged during the meetings with your employees.

Remember, you must have company-wide support of your core values for them to be effective. These are the ideals that will provide a strong foundation upon which you will be able to establish your company culture. So, once you have decided on your final set of core values, you’ll want to clearly define and give examples of key behaviors associated with each value.

This process is not a “silver bullet” and should serve only as an example to help you get started. There are a wide variety of factors that may come into play depending on the specifics of your business, industry, target market, etc. And it’s only a first step down a long path of creating and defining a strong company culture. The most important part is getting the conversation started.

In the next installment of this three part series on Developing a Strong Company Culture, we’ll discuss the importance of building a strong mission statement that can serve as a rally cry for your business.

2 Responses to Core Values are the Building Blocks of Company Culture

  1. Becky April 2, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

    Great post! I just read a book titled,”Stop Playing Safe: Rethink Risk. Unlock the Power of Courage. Achieve Outstanding Success” by Margie Warrell that teaches to build a culture of courage in your workplace that improves bottom line results- it is a valuable book for anyone wanting to improve themselves or their team in the workplace.


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