Meaningful core values: How to get started

In the beginning…

For years, whenever anyone asked me to write down my business’s core values, I wondered why. It seemed obvious to me…. integrity, honesty, treating people as you’d like to be treated, hard work. Who wouldn’t know this and why write them down? I thought like this until I engaged in a program that took me through best practice processes based on the Rockefeller Habits. No one would argue that Rockefeller built a powerful empire. So I listened and learned.

I learned that having meaningful core values drives execution. To be an effective organization these values are discovered, not dictated. I had made my list of values that I assumed were understood throughout my firm but they were only mine. I was hearing and learning some very compelling reasons to consider a values revisit. Through this, I realized that engaging my staff, getting buy in, would make my job easier.

Understanding the importance 

A team of four people thinking about Common ValuesNot only was this ‘revisit’ a great team building exercise, it helped us all appreciate the power that is built when we jointly discover, understand and share our values.

A Rockefeller Habits tenant is to have few rules, repeated often and acted upon consistently across the entire organization. Values are the backbone of these rules.

The values we discovered were broader than my assumed fist full. Honesty, integrity, hard work, were table stakes. They really didn’t provide guidance or reflect the group’s commitment to, and expectations for, serving customers, working together and feeling good about their work. What we discovered and articulated helped everyone in the firm re-frame how they did their jobs and interacted with all stakeholders: customers, owners, suppliers and colleagues.

I have come to understand that meaningful core values are both well-articulated and provide clarity for decision making. As well, they set boundaries for acceptable behaviours and customer assurances.  Values can drive sales messages, influence customer service standards and create safer environments for employee communications.  By committing to a value such as ‘customer service above all’, approval limits may be increased to enable front line employees.

This allows an employee to offer solutions when customers are upset, avoiding the tyranny of apologies, excuses and deferrals that send customer’s sideways.  Messages such as “I’ll let my manager know” risk further escalation given possible delays if ‘busyness’ or forgetfulness upstage message delivery.

Re-visioning the Core Values

A clearly understood and expressed value prompts the team to ask good questions about execution such as ‘What can be done to ensure we live this value?’ ‘Where are we failing now?’ ‘How can we ensure best experience?’ As an example, our commitment to Customer Service drove the creation of an escalation process with rigid timelines intended to drive best solutions quickly. This in turn aligned the team around our mutual commitment and agreement to find solutions.  It also created the 20 minute rule.  Troubleshooting can be a black hole, sucking up time and resources.   So we all agreed that after 20 minutes of focused troubleshooting, call for perspective and experience to help think the problem through.

The team labored over quality, arguing that it had to be top of the value listing. They felt that any erosion of quality put all the other values at risk. They then set out to discuss how we could ensure quality. From this focus, we created a process that addressed another value (Accountability) while reinforcing the importance of quality.  A physical sign-off tag was included on all racks and a QC process to independently test and sign-off each system was implemented. This process stemmed from our Rockefeller Habit focus on values and aimed directly at reduced warranty and service calls. This also gave us the confidence to create a lifetime warranty on our workmanship

Reinforcement and celebrations

Our value of Recognition of Achievements drove team celebrations of all achievements. It also ensured we entered our projects in the Industry Competitions, to raise the bar and celebrate excellence.

Having made this commitment as well as engaging the team in the core value discovery process made implementation meaningful for the whole team. As the owner, I needed to ensure consistency across all areas in the firm. It was important that new employees understood our values and the culture that grew from them. Value-added processes can impact how problem employees are treated, how reviews are conducted and how teams are rewarded. Values need to be lived throughout the firm by all employees.

External influence


C= Candid in every discussion with team, A= Attentive to phone calls, time frames and deadlines, R= Responsible, the buck stops here so avoid drama, E = Ethical by doing the right thing, the right way, the first time.

One of the more powerful values I’ve come across was shared in an industry workshop. The company’s CEO, shared their values and spoke passionately about how this drove their firm. They include these values on their website for complete transparency and accountability. Their values are communicated through an Acronym CARE. C= Candid in every discussion with team, A= Attentive to phone calls, timeframes and deadlines, R= Responsible, the buck stops here so avoid drama, E = Ethical by doing the right thing, the right way, the first time.


How to get started

Developing values as a process can both capture and feed your company culture.   

One approach likely does not fit all.  Though you can lists some pretty impressive sounding values quickly, looking at how you currently do your business and thinking about what that tells you, can expose valuable insights. In a way, this ‘backs into’ the team’s values and keeps the conversation grounded in real experiences.  I’ve understood that values come from the CEO/Owner. My experience has taught me that to ensure values resonate and lead, they have to be discovered.

Multiple Colour Sticky Notes on a wall

Here is how we did ours:

  1. Each employee got a uniquely coloured sticky note pad. Each sticky was meant to capture one thought under each of the following categories. 
    • What they thought the firm was doing well.   
    • What got in the way of doing more of what worked.
    • What wasn’t working, what we needed to stop doing or rethink.
  2. Sticky notes were then posted with like thoughts stacked together, and within the categories identified above.
    • Visually, this made it easy to see the patterns or similar experiences, which exposed both opportunities and challenges.  
  3. Everyone then got six stars to select what they believed were the six most important point across all contributions. They were asked to explain why to the team.
  4. We then used these insights to dig in and discover our core values, leading with the question ‘Why.’ Why was this important? We continue to ask why, to uncover what was behind the message on the post it, what might drive more of the good outcomes and what might guide employees to avoid the troublesome results.  For us, the core values were there to be discovered


It is important to have meaningful core values but the values need to be held by the whole team. Spending the time with your team to discover common core values and implementing these values throughout the firm can be transformational. Many processes need to align to ensure efficiencies that lead to customer satisfaction and improved profitability. Applied with commitment and consistency, values can play the role of a silent governor reminding and aligning everyone around a handful of shared rules.


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Head shot photograph of Marilyn Sanford

Marilyn Sanford is the co-founder and CEO of LincEdge.

In the past, she had co-founded and ran a custom install firm for 23 years.

You can find Marilyn on LinkedIn.

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