Core Values

Whenever you start a new endeavor, you need values to guide you.

When I first led NSNO, I struggled with this.

Fortunately, NSNO’s leadership team, in addition to coaches like Nancy Euske, helped me get better. Maggie Runyan-Shefa and Jenny Katz were invaluable.

In case you too struggle with this, here’s some of what I’ve learned:

Creating Core Values

Core values should be created *after* you have a mission and strategy.


Because core values should be a guide for how you need to think and act in order to execute a strategy that will help you accomplish your mission.

If you get this sequence wrong, your core values will probably be nice things that have nothing to do with how you need to behave in order to accomplish your specific mission.

After the values are named, associated behaviors that are specific to the organization should be detailed. People should know what it means to live your values out at your organization.

For a start-up, core values should be iterative. Set them at the outset, but revisit them often, and solidify them around a year in (or when you nail down your strategy).

Living Core Values

Modeling: This is the most important thing. Humans learn by watching the behavior of others. If you are a leader, everyone will be watching you all the time and they will learn how to behave.

Induction: The CEO (or someone in leadership) should meet with all new hires to discuss values. The leader should discuss why the specific values were chosen; tell stories of individuals who have exemplified the values; give specific examples of where organizational decisions have seen values in tension; and talk about specific instances the organization (and the leader) failed to live out the values.

Feedback: Managers should give informal (most important) and formal (scheduled and specific) feedback on whether or not team members are living out values.

Promotion and Firing: People who consistently violate values should never be promoted. If a person cannot change, the person should be fired. No one person is ever more important than the values. If this is the case, you don’t have values. You have suggestions.

The Constitution and The Bill of Right apply to every citizen. The values are more important than any individual.

An organization should be no different. It is a society in and of itself.

Project Management: Leadership owns the modeling of the values. But someone else should own the process, and this person must be someone who gets it. This person should create a calendar of events (check-ins, weekly meeting, annual meetings, celebrations, performance reviews, etc.) that are layered upon value activities (examples of historical people who have modeled values, shout-outs for recent modeling, articles that get to the heart of a value, etc.) and objectives (deepening understanding of values, modeling of values, feedback on values, debates on values in tension, open vulnerability on value failures, explaining major organizational decisions based on values).

Changing Core Values 

Core values should be reviewed when a strategy is changed, when there is a crisis in culture, or when there is new leadership.

It’s About Balancing Control and Empowerment

Core values are so important because they control how people behave when no one is watching (which is most of the time!) and they empower people to change the organization (and the world!) for the better by guiding their risk-taking, initiative, and ownership of the organization.

It’s Hard

I went from and “F” to maybe a “B-” in terms of leading through core values. It’s crazy hard. There are so many leaders that I admire that are better than me at this.

I’m better at design than project management, which makes it difficult for me to execute with a small team.

And the above is surely flawed.

It’s just my best explanation of my current understanding of core values.

Lastly, the truism is true: a culture will form whether you create it or not so you better create it.

5 thoughts on “Core Values

  1. Ken Bubp

    Excellent post.
    I’d posit that, in two senses, it’s actually not possible to create core values after you have a strategy. 1. There will be org values no matter what, whether you craft them or let them happen. They will have already been created. 2. As you stated, in a start up you set them at the outset then revisit regularly and firm up when your strategy clarifies. Probably true in all organizations, not just startups.
    In my view, core values should be *solidified* after you have a strategy. That is, what have become your core values prior to that point need to be revisited, and those which don’t support your strategy should be removed (as if that were easy). I’ve experienced the extraordinarily positive version of that once and the negative version more than once.

    Related: I was struck recently by Henry Ward’s statement, “Culture-contributors are better than culture-fitters.” from here: I may have found that from a post from you, actually.

  2. David Osborne


    This is the best thing I’ve ever read on values. Most of what I’ve read over the past 30 years is drivel. This is actually very useful.

    thanks! David


  3. James

    Any great readings you’ve had on the subject? Thoughtful synthesis, thanks On Fri, Jan 15, 2016 at 6:07 AM relinquishment wrote:

    > nkingsl posted: “Whenever you start a new endeavor, you need values to > guide you. When I first led NSNO, I struggled with this. Fortunately, > NSNO’s leadership team, in addition to coaches like Nancy Euske, helped me > get better. Maggie Runyan-Shefa and Jenny Katz were in” >

  4. Amy

    Neerav – James shared this with me. Great synthesis! I’m curious how you & team determined the core values? Was it through a consensus-type conversation with the team? What were some of the most effective strategies you used to affect staff behavior and change outcomes?


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