When I say “business values,” what runs through your head?
For many of us, it’s empty words plastered on the wall.
“Teamwork.” “Integrity.” “Communication.”
We’re trained to think of business values as corporate nonsense—because often, they are. And still, some of us try to put together our own values because we hear that’s what “real businesses” do.
However, business values aren’t just a nice item on the “Huh, I should do that” list. And they certainly aren’t meaningless. In fact, when you define your values correctly, they become a strong catalyst for change and a powerful system for day-to-day decision making.
What are business values… actually?
To put it simply, your business values are your philosophy on how you think your business should be run. They are hyper-practical guidelines that govern the daily actions of you and any employees you might hire.
Values are not just beliefs. Beliefs may change over time. Instead, your values are the central ideas that you turn to and rely on, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.
How values fit into your business
I refer to Simon Sinek’s famous TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” a lot. Sorry, you get to hear about him again. 😉
If you haven’t watched it, he defines businesses in three concentric circles. In the center is Why, followed by How, and then What. It looks like this:
Everything flows out of your “Why.” Your reason for being in business. The problem you’re out to solve in the world.
Now, your Why is not about profit. Your Why is your purpose. In Sinek’s words, “Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?”
So that’s your Why. And the How? On a high level, those are your values.
Think of your Why as the engine of your business. It’s what pushes you forward. Your values, then, are the lane lines on the road, keeping you focused on the best way to get to your destination.
So when we talk about defining your values, you must first ask what your Why is. What’s the higher purpose of your business?
After that, you can dive into the nitty-gritty of your How.
Step 1: Explore your values
In a larger corporation, values are usually set by the leadership, sometimes with the input from lower-level employees.
As a solopreneur or small business, the values decision process is much more personal and introspective. Because there are fewer people to take into account, it’s more closely tied to your personal beliefs about the world and who you are as an individual.
To begin the process of identifying your values, take a moment to answer the following questions. And yeah, this’ll be way more effective through journaling:
How do you define success?
Is it accomplishing a wider societal goal? Is it a certain level of income? Is it freedom with your time? What real-world results do you want to achieve with your business?
What do you believe is true about business in general?
From your experience, which kinds of businesses succeed, and which don’t, according to your own definition?
What works, and what doesn’t?
In an ideal situation, how do you think businesses should be run?
You get to set the rules. Should they meet a certain code of ethics? Should they limit working hours? Should they pay a certain amount? Should they accomplish a specific goal?
Step 2: Define your own values
Now that we’ve got those brain juices pumping, it’s time to take a stab at drafting your business values. Here are some good guidelines to follow:
Your values should be specific
No single-word values here. Dive deep. Explain what the value means, and how it plays out in the real world.
Example—Ben & Jerry’s statement “We support mandatory GMO labeling”
“As the campaign to label food products made with GMO ingredients moves across the states, including Vermont, Ben & Jerry’s is proud to stand with the growing consumer movement for transparency and the right to know what’s in our food supply by supporting mandatory GMO labeling legislation.”
Your values should be meaningful to you
Don’t write out a value just because you think you should. It has to be personally relevant to the way you see and interact with the world.
Example—Marie Forleo’s statement “We Believe Everything Is Figureoutable”
“Doesn’t matter what you want to create, experience or make happen. We hold an unshakeable belief in possibility. That with humility, passion and focus — we can make just about anything come to life.”
How do YOU want to run YOUR business?
What’s realistic, but still in line with your personal ethics? Write out a draft of your values to the best of your ability.
Step 3: Refine your business values
With your values written out, it’s time to see if they hold any water.
I challenge you to ask: What are you willing to sacrifice to uphold these values?
When you state your values, you set a standard, and anything beneath that standard cannot survive—or else it’s not really a value.
Let’s say you think you value transparency with your customers. Are you willing to sacrifice privacy? What does transparency actually mean to you?
Or, say you value running a business that gives you more freedom in your life. What about your employees? (And how would you actually define “freedom”?)
If you’re not willing to make the sacrifices, revise your value statements. Your goal is to speak truth and create standards that you can live up to. Otherwise—sorry to be the Debbie Downer!—but your values won’t mean much.
If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they aren’t values. They’re hobbies. – Jon Stewart
Refine your values statements as needed. Feel free to even experiment with your values over time before setting them in stone. What feels right? What aligns with that quiet voice in your soul? Let this be an organic process, and don’t be tempted to share the results of this process with the public until you’re sure you’re committed to the values you’ve written.
Using your values statements
With your values now defined, it’s time to put them to work.
After going through this process, you may have already begun to notice ways that your business must change and evolve in order to align with the values you’ve stated. This is good! It means the values you’ve chosen have real significance to you, and it’s shed light on the elements in your business that don’t line up with your big-picture goals.
Your values statements are yours to control. You don’t need to put them on your website if you don’t want to. However, at a minimum, I would encourage you to let the impact of your values flow into how you run your business.
For example: How can you make your marketing materials better align with your values?
What about your customer experience and business processes?
As I said in the beginning, business values aren’t words on a wall—they’re a catalyst for change and a tool for decision making.
The next time you’re considering whether or not to release a new product, to take on a certain client, or to buy a new tool, ask: Does this align with my business values?
When you live (and run your business) with consistency, the pathway becomes clear.
Respond in the comments: What do you value?
Even if you haven’t completed the process, I KNOW there’s at least one value that you can’t stop thinking about. For me, it’s “real talk.” I am obsessed with being honest about the trials and triumphs of growing a business, and I want to give it to you straight.
What’s yours? Leave it below!