Leadership Question #7: How Do You Communicate Your Core Values?

Continuing in my series of “20 Leadership Questions,” we come to the seventh question that Michael Smith asked when he interviewed me. This is basically a follow-up on the previous question.

Thomas Nelson Core Values Five-Star Logo

© 2005–2010 Thomas Nelson

Michael asked,

How do you or other leaders in your organization communicate the ‘core values’?”

When we finished the initial draft of our core values at Thomas Nelson, we realized that identifying the values wasn’t enough. Most organizations stop there. They hang their list in the lobby and go on to the next thing.

However, with the help of Dan Meub, my executive coach at Building Champions, we understood that we had to go further. We had to translate our core values into behaviors.

For example, we identified “World Class Talent” as one of our five values. By this, we mean that “we do what is necessary to attract, develop, and retain world-class talent.” We then identified eight specific behaviors that reflect this value. (You can see the complete list here.)

Number four says that “We communicate to our employees how we as a Company are doing.” Why? Because world-class people don’t want to be left in the dark. They want to know how the company is doing. So every quarter, whether the results are good or bad, I stand in front of the workforce and tell them how we did.

That’s just one example, of course, but you get the idea. Unless values become behaviors, you only have a set of platitudes. Unfortunately, these platitudes will ultimately create cynicism when smart people realize that your behavior doesn’t line up with your words.

So at Thomas Nelson, we rely on six methods to communicate our values:

  1. We live our values. Leading by example is the most powerful communication tools any leader possesses. While values must be taught, they are more often caught as people observe our lives. Like it or not, our behavior is always communicating our values. Therefore, we must be very intentional about how we model those values. We have to “walk the talk.”
  2. We teach our values. We put together a syllabus at Thomas Nelson that contains our complete corporate ideology. I taught it to our company a few years ago. I also teach it once a quarter or so to all new employees. One of the sections is on Core Values. We try to make it very clear about what we value and what we expect in terms of values-based behavior.
  3. We reward our values. We try to notice when people are living out the core values and affirm them in real time. But we also established an annual “Core Values Award.” Once a year all of our employees nominate and vote on the five people who best exemplify our values. Then we announce the winners at our Quarterly Team Meeting. We give each one public recognition, a trophy, and a cash prize.
  4. We hire new people based on our values. When considering a new hire, we look for three things: competence, personal character, and a cultural fit. Values are expressed in the last two. We want to hire people who share our values. If the values don’t resonate with the prospective employee, we know they are not going to be a good fit with our culture. It is better to avoid the problem on the front end than have to deal with it on the back end.
  5. We review people based on our values. A section of our annual review process is dedicated to our core values and how we did living them out. Admittedly, there is a subjective element to this evaluation. However, our goal is not to be scientific; it is to foster an on-going conversation about our values, so we can reinforce what is important.
  6. We let people go based on our values. We can educate people if they don’t have sufficient knowledge. We can train people if they don’t have adequate skills. We can even disciple people if their character is deficient. But we can only do these if we have a willing subject. If someone consistently behaves contrary to our values—even if they are a high achiever—we have to show them the door. Otherwise, it reflects on our credibility and commitment to our values.

While all these are important, probably the most powerful way we communicate our values is in the decisions we make. People watch these carefully. The more we can connect our everyday decisions to our values, the more we will reinforce them and shape our culture.

Question: What do you do in your organization to communicate your core values?
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  • Matt Edmundson

    Can I ask how many staff you have? I have a company of around 10 – so quite small. Do you think these translate into a smaller company environment?

    We have values that we use in our hiring decisions. I do most of what you suggest (well done me :-D) not really thought about rewarding values before. mmmm – I will have to ponder that.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      We have about 500. However, I have worked in smaller companies (my own). It is just important but a little easier because you have fewer people to align.

  • http://www.therextras.com BarbaraBoucher PTPhD

    "Unless values become behaviors, you only have a set of platitudes. Unfortunately, these platitudes will ultimately create cynicism when smart people realize that your behavior doesn’t line up with your words."

    So true.

    The distinction you make in number 5 is important and poorly understood, I think. People underestimate the subjectivity in quoted statistics – leading them to think of surveys as 'science'.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Yes, I think it is better just to admit it up front.

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/drockwel Dan Rockwell


    Here's one we try to do. Tell success stories that express values. Thats like #3 on your list but I wanted to add the term "story" to the conversation.


    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell
    Today's blog: De-motivation – http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Great example. I think stories are probably the most powerful tool in our box.

  • Laura

    This is an awesome blog post – applies to our personal lives too – good reminder!

  • http://www.joetye.com Joe Tye

    The single most important thing that I have learned about values during my 16 years with Values Coach is that values are skills. Like learning German or learning to ride a bike, to effectively live your values you must study (yes, you can learn skills for living more courageously), you must practice them (yes, it is easier to persevere your way through difficulty when you've done it before), And if you don't study and don't practice values, they atrophy just like any other skill will atrophy when it is demoted to lofty words tacked up on the wall.

    Most people, and most organizations, have not really thought about their values as skills: how do values influence the way we set priorities?: how do values influence the way we do and don't talk about each other in the break room?: how do values influence the way we deal with adversity and conflict?; how we make decisions when you can live one value but not another (an experience any parent who's been told that their child needs "tough love" can relate to). As Barbara points out, unless values also create behavioral expectations, they are just words.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Great comment, Joe. Do you see skills (your term) as different than behaviors (my term) or are they synonymous? Thanks.

      • http://www.joetye.com Joe Tye

        I think they are different. For example, almost every company says that integrity is an important value (explcitly or implicitly). And almost every one of those companies tolerates a rumor mill. Of course, gossiping and rumor-mongering are behaviors that say the company has a culture that does not take integrity, respect, dignity and compassion seriously. Skill-building occurs when that company teaches people how to constructively confront the gossips in a way that says "That is not The (company name) Way – we don't do that here."

        Our course on The Twelve Core Action Values has four cornerstones for each value (60 modules altogether). When I teach that course, I am not teaching values – I am teaching people the skills to live those values that are universal (like integrity) the behaviors for which must be studied, practiced, and internalized.

  • http://twitter.com/remygervais @remygervais

    Incredibly said Michael Too many business owners ignore their values when making hiring decisions.

  • http://www.PurposeDrivenBroker.com Dan Foster

    Mike, this post was so timely for me. I just had to tell a client we could no longer work with them because of a major difference between our values and his. This was a million dollar client that would have brought in great revenue for my team and me personally. While the conversation was difficult to have, the ability to point to articulated values and convictions that were in direct conflict to his brought me peace and confidence when speaking with him. Your post confirmed for me this morning that it was the right move. Thanks!

    So, to answer your question, I believe living out your core values is the most powerful way to communicate them and I strive to do that each day.

    Keep up the great work.


    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Good for you, Dan. I know that takes enormous courage. I have done it on several occasions. I have NEVER regretted it.

  • http://www.danieldecker.net Daniel Decker

    I love this. Values are just ideals unless they are applied and lived out. The values of how I run my business and how I live my life are like the guard rails that keep me on the road. I don't have a large staff, mostly contracted providers, but the values of my company apply just the same with one person as they do with 10 or 100. For me it begins with staying true with what I believe and reflecting on that often to make sure what I say my values are actually matches with my actions. Alignment is a big deal. The actual act of communicating is done through consistency, transparency and accountability.

  • Joe S

    This is one of the most important questions I've ever seen asked and answered. How you communicate your core values – and seeing leaders who communicate a value but fail to behave like it – is one of the biggest diseases in corporate america today. OR I should say, its the biggest disease I see in my own executives that I work for.

    Thank you so much for this.

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/mitchebie Mitch Ebie

    The six methods are short and to the point! I tend to be a creature of habit, I think most of us are. When values shape the method, then good habits can form. Sometimes my habits are not based on my values, but it is still my daily goal.

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/kaikunane ThatGuyKC

    "Unless values become behaviors, you only have a set of platitudes."

    You don't plan on opening a Seattle satellite office are you? :-)

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and professional wisdom. I wish you and Thomas Nelson the best!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I’d love to. Seattle is one of my favorite cities on the planet!

      • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/kaikunane ThatGuyKC

        It is great, isn't it?

        Let me know when and I'm on board!!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    Long ago, when I was 18, God convicted me of hypocrisy and I am so glad He did. My determination to avoid saying one thing and doing another has helped me be effective as a parent and a teacher. I grew up hearing "Do what I say, not what I do" and that bothered me. Keep standing strong on leading by example and not just by words!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/success2you John Richardson

    I can't help but think how great our world would be if our politicians lived by your point number one. Instead of sticking their fingers in the air to see which way the wind is blowing and spewing out platitudes to match, if they just would state their principles and live by them, we might actually be able to face a hurricane, oil spill, or earthquake head on and know that someone was in charge.

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  • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhsmith michaelhsmith

    Thanks for continuing this series. The answers you are given are a great resource.

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  • http://www.stephenblandino.com Stephen Blandino

    Great post Michael. Very good. Sometimes organizations struggle with "actual values" vs "perceived values." I've found four questions particularly helpful in identifying a person (or organization's) actual values:
    1. How do you behave?
    2. How do you invest your time?
    3. How do you spend your money?
    4. What questions do you ask?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Those are very good questions, Stephen. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.mediaplug.biz Nicole

    This has been my favorite post of the series so far. Values are often overlooked in business and personal lives because they're had to live up to. But, the businesses who actually DO live up the values they've stated seem to be the ones who are the most successful in the long run.

    What a great reminder and piece of encouragement. Thank you.

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  • Mark

    Got to be honest, core values are code for do what I say and not what I do.  My grandfather taught me a long time ago, people who run around telling you their values have no values.  Values are what you live and do, not what you  say,  I have worked for three companies where leadership are talking core values, when it comes right down to all of them valued money.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sure it was disillusioning.

      No company (or any of us) live fully up to the values we espouse. But at least by articulating them, we can set the destination and provide a benchmark for accountability.
      Thanks for your comment.

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