I am still surprised by the number of professionals – from firms both large and small – who are unable to articulate their firm’s core values guiding principles. That is why I wanted to write this blog, in the hopes that you will be motivated to define, communicate and then model your firm’s values.

Why Would You?
Your firm’s organizational or core values are the beacons of light that your leadership team and staff will follow when making strategic and tactical decisions each day. They are intended to give language to the intrinsically valued behaviors and outcomes in your practice – the things that you believe are desirable and important. Your values signal to others what your organization holds dear and what you are committed to be known for and uphold.

If you want your people to behave in a certain way, or produce specific outcomes, you have to define, communicate and then model your expected behaviors and outcomes. The same is true related to your core values. In order for your people to live and embody them, three critical actions must occur

  1. Your leadership team must define and commit to a set of core values.
  2. These values should then be communicated on an ongoing basis.
  3. Your leadership team has to live these values daily.

When these three actions are in play in your organization, your core values will strengthen and inspire your team and contribute to the sound functioning of your organization.

What Are Your Values?
I encourage you to use the following methodology to define (or refine) your firm’s values:

  • Decide who will contribute to defining your organizational values. At a minimum, we believe that all members of your leadership or partner group should participate. Ideally, though, you will solicit the input of several or all staff, too, which will encourage their understanding and buy-in to the values identified and will energize your team, too.
  • Start with a list of potential values. We have developed a list that you may want to use as your starting point. If you’d like me to e-mail that list to you, post a reply to this blog or reach out to me separately.
  • Distribute the list to those you’ve selected to participate and ask them to rank the values in order of importance. The values they select should be what they believe truly reflect the firm’s essence – not what they think will make you look “good” or impress clients. Remember that those values you ultimately choose need to be upheld by your entire team. We suggest you start with a larger list (our list has 54 potential values) and ask your team to narrow the list to ten values they feel are most important to your organization. Then, ask them to weight the values by putting 10 points on the one value they “cannot live without,” 9 points on the next most important value and so on.
  • Tabulate the values to identify the top choices. We use a simple Excel grid to compile each individual’s value choices, and I can send you a template if you reply to this post. This grid will enable you to calculate which values received the most points and also those that were chosen most frequently in each person’s top 10.
  • Analyze the output as a leadership team and choose your core values. Examine differences between the choices made by different members of your leadership team as these may point to areas where you lack unity and need discussion. Also look for differences between the values identified by the leadership team and those of the staff, as they may highlight disconnects that need to be addressed. Work to narrow your list of core values to between five to seven values to enable the list to be easily communicated and memorable.

Tell the World
Once your leadership team has agreed on your firm’s five to seven values, craft the values, or their synonyms, into sentences that will comprise your value statement, describing the behavior and/or outcome you want the values to inspire or encourage. For instance, if one of your firm’s chosen core values is integrity, your value statement might include a sentence that reads something like:

“At FIRM ABC, we are committed to act with the utmost integrity, to keep our word and promote an environment of honesty and trust in our relationships with others.”

When you have incorporated each of your firm’s values into a written value statement and gained leadership buy-in, you’re ready to communicate your values to others. There are many potential ways to make them known, but consider the following ideas:

  • Introduce the written values statements to your staff in an all-hands meeting
  • Go “deep” on one core value per staff or department meeting
  • Include the values statements in your firm’s employee handbook and new employee orientation manual.
  • Produce values statement premiums or giveaways
  • Incorporate your values statement into your firm’s overall positioning and story
  • Introduce your values to your clients

When you communicate your firm’s values, you are setting the bar for the conduct you expect from your partners and staff and will be expressing a commitment about what clients, prospects and referral sources can expect from your firm. And, because so many firms don’t share their core values, the very fact that you have done so can be a genuine differentiator for your firm.

Now, the Hard Part
The most difficult aspect of this exercise is also the most important. It is a well-known tenant of leadership that your people’s actions mirror your behaviors. If you want them to uphold your core values, you and your leadership team have to live them first – not just selectively, but uniformly and daily.

I cannot easily prescribe specific activities to ensure that you’re modeling your firm’s valued behavior and outcomes, because the activities you will undertake are dependent upon the values you choose. Instead, I’ll share a few tips to consider regarding this critical element:

  • Do not commit to, or communicate, core values that you know you cannot uphold.
  • Recognize that your clients and staff will use the values statements to argue their position when they do not agree with the actions or policies of the firm.
  • Consider including value measurements in your partner, leader and team member performance appraisals.
  • Explore the idea of including the values as elements of your partner or owner code of conduct.

Now you have a pathway to define (or refine), communicate and then live your firm’s core values. The very things you say you hold dear, and sustain you as a team, will set you apart as unique and different from your competition.

So, what are your thoughts on defining, communicating and living your core values? We’re interested!