3 Keys to Defining Company Values
Apply core values to resolve simple problems & determine business strategies

Visions, missions and values often adorn webpages, business cards and conference rooms. For some firms, these enduring statements provide guidance and direction, but for many, they are just a flowery series of adjectives that barely ever see the light of day. While most construction projects and the business itself are often run independently, a company’s core values should be used to represent the DNA of the entire organization. Often characterized as single words, core values should provide a checklist. For instance, when evaluating a potential project, client or associate, the firm turns to the core values as a litmus test to determine fit. Just as a human cannot alter his/her DNA, a firm should use these guiding principles to not only support and run the business, but also to hopefully provide true firm differentiation.

Determine The Belief System

So many firms look for the ultimate set of core values to truly separate them from their peers. Unfortunately, in the world of construction, the number of truly defining values is somewhat limited. As stated previously, words like “safety” and “integrity” are often the backbone, leaving many leaders to feel as if they are plagiarizing, rather than creating some original piece of thought leadership.

It is understandable to feel as if all of the good values are taken, but in reality, the real differentiation is in the application of the values. For instance, how many firms incorporate the word “safe” into their core values or vision, and then live their lives 180 degrees from that concept.

Better yet, many people might recall a certain energy organization that was found guilty of one of the greatest acts of fraud in business history. Interestingly enough, one of that firm’s core values was “integrity.” Senior management believed in that value so strongly that it had the word chiseled in the floor of the corporate office. Apparently, the leaders forgot that it was more important to chisel it into their brains and hearts. Or maybe it was so they could, in fact, walk all over that value.

The most important consideration is finding the four to six core values that truly describe the firm. Once again, this is the DNA of the firm and the indelible characteristics on which it will not compromise.

The moment a firm stumbles on its values is the moment it loses its credibility, internally and externally. Remember, core values inevitably become a firm’s report card. In many cases, there is a certain amount of cynicism about these values, “Humpf—that firm is not that!”

Ultimately, core values shouldn’t become fodder for the public’s negative sentiment, but guideposts for everyone. However, are the core values written on the wall what you believe, or what you think others want you to be?

Live the Values

One of the best tests to employ is to ask associates of the firm to recite the core values. While it sounds childish, it makes sense to see how deep those values run. If they can answer that pop quiz, it is time to up the ante—ask them to identify the last time they witnessed someone leading or managing according to those core values. For instance, when was the last time they saw the firm being innovative?

Could they give an example of integrity within the firm? It is easy to talk about values, but living them each day is much more challenging.

One idea would be to reward people within the firm based on the exhibition of the core values. Creating a system that simply acknowledges true value leadership is one perspective.

Too often, firms have incentive compensation systems driven by profitability, but expect employees to act in a way that might come into conflict with the core values.

For instance, how many firms have “integrity” as a core value, yet still see examples of small breaches in cost reporting? While these may be miniscule in the grand scheme, integrity is not limited to the actions of the corner office, but transcends every aspect of a firm’s business.

Define the Values

Developing talent remains a constant challenge for firms. Where to begin and how to start training are two of the most often asked questions. Use the core values as that basis. If a firm’s values are safety, quality and customer service, use those subjects as the curriculum to train associates of the firm. While safety is one of the easier areas to train, so many other subjects that carry importance fail to receive the attention they deserve.

The key aspect to remember is definition. For the most part, safety is fairly black or white. You are either safe, or you are not. However, quality and customer service are two examples where many shades of grey exist. In the case of customer service, the question was asked, “What does customer service mean to you?” Consider these differing responses from two foremen:

  • Foreman No. 1 – “Do whatever the customer says, even if it costs us money.”
  • Foreman No. 2 – “Communicate with the customer. They may not understand the contract and want something free.”

On the surface, the answers above may account to mere semantics. However, one foreman is willing to give away the farm, whereas one foreman—who may have the right approach—is willing to engage in talks with his customer and stand firm.

The right answer should be defined by the firm, with appropriate input from the customers of course. Once that answer has been established, the firm can then focus on training and educating the team on what service looks like, how it feels, what a standard customer response sounds like, how to deal with difficult customers and how to replicate it. The same could be said for quality. Everyone’s definition of quality differs. No one has insidious intentions to do poor-quality work, but without a template to follow, it starts to look as ambiguous as the previous customer-service comment.

Core values are often common words—words we see every day and give little credence. However, the best-in-class firms use their core values every day to solve the simple problems and define choices for their business strategies.

In the end, core values should be such that every associate would be willing to get them tattooed because they believe them that strongly. While we can probably limit the amount of ink, making core values indelible in the business should be everyone’s priority.