How do you identify and pick your company values?

Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras outlines the results of a six-year research project into what makes enduring great companies.  Collins and Porras assert that a core ideology is composed of a set of core values and a purpose that guide an individual or organization forward.   Core Values are essential and enduring tenets not to be compromised for financial gain or short-term results.

The 6 years of analysis and research by Collins and Porras prove that the most successful companies are mission and value-driven.  The question for me is how do you define and select those values.  So I spent a couple of days doing some online research with no meaningful results.  There were a lot of articles that discuss the importance of company values, but very few that provide suggestions for how you identify those values.

So I posted a question on the Linked-in HR Group and within 24 hours received many helpful responses.

Executive coach Gregor Findlay offered this advice:

To identify the real values that are in place, interview the leadership and then examine their behaviours. If the behaviours observed support the values espoused then you have a good chance that you have correctly identified the existing values. If they don’t match, then you’ve a bigger challenge.


Author Adina Balauru suggests going right to the top:

The shareholders or the owner who have created the company is the one that knows what is the mission of it. He has a vision of this business on short-medium-long term. And in order to complete the mission, the company’s employees need guiding points such as the values. Usually the values belong to the company’s creator or to the leader of the company who inspires the rest of the employees to be performant and to enjoy their work on a long term.

Finally, the approach we ended up using to pick MeritShare’s values was suggested by Bill Burnett, the co-founder of THNK.

We use a process that takes Collins and Porras’s Core Ideology in Built to Last with a slight but very significant variation. The whole process, from blank page to crystal clear definition of what you call Mission, core values, and behaviors (desired and banned) takes less than a day. Mission is easy. It is the What and Why expressly linked to some intrinsic good. You are spot on that there is a tight link between Mission and core values. And that is where we depart from Built to Last when it comes to values. And this is the hardest thing for companies to grasp because of a feature of the brain Daniel Kahneman refers to “theory induced blindness” The theory is that values drive behavior. It is an appealing idea and most people believe it is true. We like to think that our behavior is guided by that internal compass. But the theory is wrong. Perfectly rational people behave in ways that is in direct opposition to their values everyday. And what we absolutely need to attend to are behaviors, after all, it is all your get from your people. And equally important we need to have those behaviors be highly motivated right behaviors. That is where values come in. Values answer the “How” question in ways that link to some intrinsic good. It is possible that a Mission requires no additional “How” statements. These are not behavior statements, they are statements around doing some good. They become the foundation for how you link individual job behaviors to the fundamental motivators of Identity and Meaning (separate conversation).


For example, it we were to tackle Method Cleaning products. Their mission might be to make families healthier and happier by making the home they live in sparklingly clean and germ free. Supporting values statements (How) might be “by making products and packaging that are 100% environmentally friendly; by making products that are safe and non-toxic.” This gives us a foundation for motivating behaviors for employees. Method’s current values (except for one) are really behavioral statement. They want to be spontaneous and have fun (“Keep Method Wierd”), they want to be resourceful (“What would McGyver do?”), they want to be innovative (“Innovate, don’t imitate”), and they want their employees to work together (“Collaborate like crazy”). These are behavior statements. In our model, you need to spend a bit more time on behaviors and we work with leadership teams throughout the organization to define the behaviors, both of employees, and (harder work) the behavior of leaders.

Defining your mission and values is important if you want to build a great company that attracts top talent.  Thank you to Bill, Adina, & Gregor for your thoughtful and helpful advice.