“It’s not hard to make decisions once you know what your values are.”
That famous line is from Roy E. Disney. Most leaders would agree in principle, but despite our best intentions, living by core values is easier said than done.
I often help clients develop compelling core values they will actually utilize. We begin with Pat Lencioni’s warning: “Most values statements are bland, toothless, or just plain dishonest. And far from being harmless, they’re often destructive. Empty values statements create cynical and dispirited employees … and undermine credibility.”
Are you surprised? In his article, “Make Your Values Mean Something,” Lencioni says that in many cases, “You’ll be better off without one.”
Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. An authentic, well-crafted set of values can guide an organization forward and keep them on track by serving as “cultural cornerstones.”
Recently, I interviewed Jodi Cole Meyer about the topic of core values. She’s the executive director of a West Michigan nonprofit called Love Your Neighbor. This group provides community support services for under-resourced families in a unique assets-based approach to transformation and independence.
I found her responses very insightful, and extremely helpful. In my work, it’s often that the non-profit world is looking to the corporate world for examples of organizational excellence. In this case, the opposite is true. If you’re a corporate leader, take a lesson from this non-profit organization on how to incorporate core values…
Jay: We hear a lot about core values today. Sadly, many companies either don’t have them or don’t even know what they are. What are your core values and what do they mean to Love Your Neighbor?
Jodi: We had a unique opportunity to define—or redefine—our core values when we went through a rebranding process. Doing it then allowed us to bring clarity to our mission, and to pull people together as we experienced major change. The values acted as anchors for us in a time of uncertainty.
As you know, we’re a faith-based nonprofit organization. Our five underlying core values are Grace, Openness, Diligence, Collaboration and Dignity.
Jay: What’s the origin of these choices?
Jodi: They’re all based on scriptural principles. We have a catchphrase descriptor that explains each of the key words.
Jay: Great. Give us the thumbnail for each.
Jodi: Sure, they are…
- Grace. Assuming the best, we lead with extending favor. (2 Corinthians 1:12)
- Openness. We value and seek other perspectives. (Philippians 2:3-4)
- Diligence. We are persistent in all efforts to achieve our mission. (Hebrew 6:10-11)
- Collaboration. Working together, we value every contribution. (1 Corinthians 12)
- Dignity. We believe every person bears God’s image, and therefore has value. (Genesis 1:26-27)
Jay: Can you give us an overview of how your organization is using core values?
Jodi: We believe that values shape our culture—they determine how we expect each other to behave, and they define the limits of what we will accept. Since we expect that of every employee, it’s the basis for our annual review. We do 360 reviews, and the evaluations are organized according to our values. We also ask each of our team members to present on one value during our monthly staff meetings, followed by discussion. In our facilities, we have posters in the hallways highlighting how we apply our values. We onboard new team members by demonstrating how the values are implemented, and asking for their commitment to them.
Jay: What was the motivation to implement core values in this way?
Jodi: The idea was birthed in a time of change—we were rebranding, rebuilding and fine-tuning our mission and purpose. At that time, our organization was disaffiliating from a national network and taking on a new name and identity after 37 years of working in the community. It was critical for us to “circle the wagons;” to gather together around our common values. Frankly, we needed a chance to codify and celebrate the values we had been living out for the last four decades, and identify what we wanted our identity to be going forward.
Jay: How’d the process go?
Jodi: We used our agreed-upon common values to rally each other, to course correct, and as a grid to identify and celebrate “wins.” In short, classifying our core values was the best way to remind ourselves why we do what we do. As a relatively new executive director, I had a lot to learn about leading with clarity rather than certainty.
Jay: What difference has using your core values in this way made with your team and the organization?
Jodi: It’s been a great “shorthand” for helping to keep our culture in line with our vision and values. It helps us identify and point out why certain behaviors or habits are detrimental to our community. With our core values as “true north,” we can identify and deal with things we don’t like. It gives us a unified vocabulary to talk about how we expect each other to behave, and why that expectation is necessary to achieve our common goal.
Thankfully, sticking to our core of collaborative values has united us in a time when we’ve experienced some pushback from the community about what our mission is. Like I said earlier, our values are a helpful anchor when things get rough.
Jay: How has implementing the core values this way affected your leadership? What’s its biggest gift to you as a leader?
Jodi: In a word, clarity. I am really grateful for the ability to speak clearly about expectations because they come directly from common values. When we look at behaviors in light of our common values, it’s far less “fuzzy” about what’s allowable and what isn’t because it’s not based on personal values, but on shared values. Without having objective guidelines, we’d be subject to opinions and assumptions.
Jay: Sounds very helpful. Can you give us an example of a time when applying these core values was a challenge for you?
Jodi: We’re a group that welcomes input from team members and others—especially about implementing new programs. That’s particularly true during the formative stages of potential initiatives. However, once we get moving with a new idea, we’re less open to change. That’s because we pride ourselves on having done the research, defined the processes, and come up with the best possible solution. By then, we’ve done our homework, applied our core values, and have confidence in a positive outcome.
Recently, we hit some speedbumps with this approach. We had come up with a new way of interacting with churches to reach more people. It seemed great to us. But when it came time to implement the partnership with churches, some of them had different ideas about what their participation would look like. Honestly, it was very hard to remain open to their objections, because we were so excited and confident about our ideas.
I guess when something is working poorly, or failing, we all love getting other ideas on how to fix it. But when something is working really well, it’s much more difficult for our team to stay open and curious about ways that it might change. This situation challenged us to stay true to our “Openness” value where we value and seek other perspectives.
Jay: You’ve been working for a while now under this premise. What would you say is your number one takeaway about core values?
Jodi: The only way for values to function in a meaningful way is to talk about them consistently, and demonstrate on a daily basis how they will be used in the organization. You cannot just print them up and stick them in a drawer. Creating a set of core values is not something you do out of obligation or just to be a trendy organization. To work at all, they need to be at the forefront of each decision and action your group takes. Like any movement, sacred or secular, we have to guard against “vision leak.”
Jay: So, it takes ongoing participation? Like diet or fitness training?
Jodi: You are never done creating culture. That means as a leader, you’re never done reiterating and reminding your team (and yourself) of your establishing values.
Jay: What advice would you give fellow leaders about implementing core values?
Jodi: Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. It takes repetition to embed the values into your people and processes. You can use each repetition to clarify what each value means to the community and the organization. The Apostle Peter thought this was a pretty good idea, also. In his second epistle, he told his team, “I will always remind you of these things, even though you already know them.”
Jay: I couldn’t agree more. One version of that verse says, “Because the stakes are so high, I’m not gong to let up for a minute.” That works for me. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom with us!
I’m grateful to Jodi Cole Meyer for her friendship and for her leadership in the greater community. If any of my readers would like to reach out to Jodi or get more information on Love Your Neighbor, check them out online.
I love helping organizations clarify their values, and would be thrilled to come alongside your group to help you develop and implement an honest, viable set of core values. If you’d like to discuss how to do so, feel free to contact me for an informal chat.