When Google first emerged as a tech firm to be reckoned with, co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin conceived an unofficial motto for the corporate code of conduct. A subtle jab at the corporate overlords of competing tech companies, this axiom was resonant, plain, and powerful:
Don’t be evil.
Internally, the motto was well-known, though never officially ‘on the books.’ Google later restructured, giving birth to its own parent company: Alphabet. At Alphabet, the new powers-that-be committed the phrase to print, but changed it to the comparatively toothless “Do the right thing.”
Google’s core values don’t contain either phrase. And when you consider the bevy of allegations that the company “distastefully uses the personal information” of its users, you can’t help but wonder – is that breach symptomatic of their failure to adhere to this old, earnest motto?
The now-abandoned motto seems to cast a shadow on the whole of the company when you read lines like: “Google has quietly dropped its “Don’t be evil” motto.” “While Google has deemphasized the motto over time…” Reading that, you can’t help but chuckle. The subtext is clear, if not a little disheartening. Perhaps power brings with it certain necessary evils? Having jettisoned the well-meaning maxim, one can’t help but think so.
The whole ordeal seems to serve as a lesson in core values, and how easy it is to lose sight of them amid explosive growth and burgeoning power. Establishing and holding fast to your core values will effectively anchor your business to reality and ethics. Google’s debacle aside, it is worth noting that 80% of the Fortune 100 have publicly established core values – and companies with an articulated higher purpose outperform others by as much as 400%, according to corporate coaching firm, Delivering Happiness. Additionally, companies that emphasize their core values have less employee turnover, higher customer retention, and greater profitability than those that don’t.
How To Choose Core Values For Your Company
Despite its eventual abandonment, Page and Brin picked the simple phrase because it encapsulated the institution’s principles. Not because they plucked it from a list of common values that companies ought to hold. It was uniquely suited to their mission, and relevant to the shortcomings of Google’s contemporaries.
In any conversation about a company’s core values the easy pitfall is not choosing values germane to their company’s mission and culture. Don’t blindly choose values based in whatever you think you’re supposed to adopt. Take a long hard look at the inner-workings of your company. These values are internal (company-facing), meant to breed a sense of unity for all those who espouse them – which are you and your employees. A carefully considered set of core values can help guide decision-making at critical moments in your business and set the tone for company culture, while keeping you morally and ethically accountable.
When I founded my company, Advantage Media Group 13 years ago I had an idealistic vision for the company’s internal culture – but I lacked a concrete set of core values to guide that vision. I knew the company culture would directly influence employee satisfaction as well as their work performance. High employee satisfaction is symbiotic – beneficial to both myself and employees. (It’s a simple truth that engaged, happy employees outperform their unengaged counterparts.)
Despite my best intentions, it was a mess in the beginning. My employees were no more happy than your average worker. While I aimed for Advantage to be a standout in employee satisfaction, it was a goal without an actionable plan. When setting the tone for company culture, core values are an essential component and I hadn’t so much as considered them. What I can’t stress enough is that a winning company culture doesn’t just happen. It is intentional, strategic, and thoughtful in its construction. Core values serve as a kind of road map in that construction.
When I finally began drafting the core values of Advantage|ForbesBooks, I wanted to codify the sense of unity, integrity, and purpose that I felt characterized it. These weren’t going to be forgettable platitudes – they were going to central to everything we do. After all, they are called core values. Ours are:
- Create an environment that breeds greatness
- Make a difference
- Build the Advantage Family
- Take initiative and be resourceful
- Commit to lifelong learning
I had to reshuffle my priorities and conceive a method to ensure the execution of each value. I’m proud of the way we’ve shifted employee satisfaction to the forefront of how the company is managed. It has made an immeasurable difference in our performance and ability to attract and retain talent. It’s the principle of reciprocity in action.
Questions To Consider When Adopting Core Values:
- What is truly and deeply important at your company?
- What is unique about working there?
- Is there a higher purpose that aligns with your company vision?
- What do you strive to never do at your company?
- What expectations do your employees have, with regard to management and autonomy?
These intentionally broad, open-ended questions are meant to generate abundant and varied responses. Pass them off to your employees and arrange a meeting to discuss their answers. Have them come prepared with ideas and do so yourself as well. Sit down together and sift through all of your respective responses. Identify themes and constants. Bring notecards and jot down a minimum of 20-25 ideas and thoughts that you and your team members bring forward. Whittle down these compiled ideas, until you are left with 5-10 that you and your team have determined are the most important.
The generation of ideas for your core values should be as organic as possible, not feeding off of referenced lists you mined online. The style and presentation of your core values can be clean-cut and straightforward, if suited to your company. Conversely, injecting a bit of humor or sass may suit your company better. As the owner, consider the fact that, in many ways, the company is imbued with aspects of your personal character. Your employees all consciously chose to get on board with it! So don’t be afraid to inject a bit of your own character into the style, presentation, and wording of your core values. As it’s been said in the business world: when appropriate, “Show a little skin!”
These values come into play at almost every turn within our work day, shaping our decision-making and pushing us to maintain peak performance. I issue a wallet card to every employee with our core values listed for easy reference. As a business leader, I cannot stress this enough. As soon as you can, put your heads together with your employees – brainstorm and adopt the core values best suited to your company – then watch it thrive.
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