Key to a strong culture is a compelling set of corporate values. These shared beliefs serve as the cultural glue for the organization. Our CEO and President, Gary Baker, recently sat down to discuss how a company can uncover its core values and most effectively bring them to life.

Q: How does a company arrive at their values?

They come from within. That’s why they’re often referred to as core values. They are your core ideals, your belief system, your religion. They become your moral compass, your timeless guiding principles and enduring tenants of your organization.

It takes rigorous soul searching to get at them. A good place to start is by asking leaders and employees — what values do you bring to work everyday? You can do so through interviews and work sessions. The themes that emerge will help point you to your core values.

The truth about corporate values is quite simply that they must be the truth. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of articles recently that fall short in discussing the topic of corporate values. It’s not the latest business trend or marketing technique. It’s not the latest shiny object. You can’t fake it. Values don’t come from external forces. You can’t adopt another company’s values.

Q: Some companies seem to have very generic values. How can a company avoid that?

Your values must be expressed in a meaningful and passionate way. They must be authentic and believable, speak the truth and be ownable and distinctive. Employees must feel them to believe and live them.

As you describe your values, your specific word choice and language is important. You should write and speak about your core values using language that captures the spirit of your organization. Steer clear of replaceable, generic terms. I encourage organizations to be very explicit and clear with their values. The terms and descriptions you give should provide direction and act as a behavioral guide for employees throughout the organization.

Done right, values can set a company apart from the competition. They can help attract top talent. Your values must be the strongest representation of your organization’s culture that will serve as a rallying point, instilling pride and inspiration.

Q: What is leadership’s role in the success of corporate values?

We’re wired to look to our leaders for inspiration and guidance through what they say and, more importantly, what they do. Employees experience and learn about their corporate values through the behaviors they observe in their leaders — what they do, who they acknowledge, how they make decisions and how they personally live them every day.

The difference between successful companies and unsuccessful ones is whether the employees believe the words, see the actions and feel the meaning. That happens when the leaders not only wholly endorse them, but also model the behaviors they want the organization to emulate. They can’t just talk the talk; they must also walk the walk. It’s ideal when leaders are the creators, the drivers and the evangelists. When it comes from their heart and soul, it speaks volumes.

Q: How can you help employees use values in their daily work life?

A company must make the investment to educate and train their people on the values and associated behaviors and actions. It’s a continuous conversation and an ongoing process of awareness and education.

Talk about the values in real time, including specific examples of how they can be used in everyday situations. Make the training real. Make it enjoyable. Make it fun. Get people engaged. Use interactive approaches and conversational formats that allow people to tell their own story. Let them share how the values are relevant to them personally. See our Avery Dennison values and ethics case study.

If the values are clearly stated and well internalized, they’ll better guide employees’ strategies, decisions, actions and behaviors. When they make sense, people understand how they can bring them to life. I often hear from employees whose company truly lives their values that they are proud to work for/to be affiliated with a company of that caliber.

Q: What must a company do to truly make the values a part of their culture?

A company must integrate and embed their values into all aspects of their operations — programs and practices, the business strategy, the operational decision-making, HR, marketing and customer service. Identify which programs or practices are the most meaningful, and prioritize those that give the biggest bang for your buck and spark the greatest momentum.

This takes time to do right. You don’t have to boil the entire ocean at once to see positive results. But you do need to remove any barriers in current business practices that are not aligned and holding you back. When employees see a sincere and honest effort from the top, it can have a significant and immediate impact.

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Key Takeaways

Getting clear on your core values is about uncovering what lies within, not imposing external ideals

The specific language used to describe your values should capture the spirit of the organization

Successful leaders model the behaviors they want their organization to emulate

Giving employees opportunities to tell their own stories makes the conversation more relevant

Embedding your values into all aspects of your organization takes time; start with the areas that give the biggest bang for your buck

Related client story

Avery Dennison values and ethics training