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  • Writer's pictureCynthia Ulman

You Are What You Value

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

Jewish Community Center of San Francisco prominently displays its values.

In the Western U.S., wildfire season has begun, and we are all advised to have our “Go Bag” at the ready. As I recently gathered the things that I care most about saving in an emergency, I reflected that what most defines each of us, never even gets packed in our Go Bag. The values that we believe in and live by stay with us, whether we consciously acknowledge them or not. Organizations and businesses, like individuals, show their true values most clearly in challenging times.

In my recent blog post, Never Waste a Crisis, I posed six questions leaders need to ask after COVID (or any crisis). The first question is:

“How will our commitment to core values show up in the way we rebuild?”

Consider the education sector. Throughout the COVID pandemic, we have watched schools and universities grapple with how to deliver on core values of educational impact, socialization, community building, and safety. In some cases, they have completely reimagined their future. Although they have made widely varied choices about when and how to open, institutions consistently explain their approach in terms of values – not the financial and risk analyses that were undoubtedly major factors. No matter how bad the news, leaders use their institution’s values to tell students, faculty, staff, donors and the community a unique story showing how the institution’s values have driven its decisions.

To do this effectively, you must have clear, well-articulated and shared core values that everyone connected with your organization knows. That’s actually a pretty high bar, and relatively few organizations meet it. The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, whose leadership I worked with some years ago, was so certain of the permanence of their seven values that they built them into a two-story artwork in the central atrium of their new building (see photo above). It’s a constant reminder to everyone who walks in the front door.

For leaders who can’t articulate that degree of certainty, now is a great time to zero in on values! Why? Because periods of intense change are the times when you need your values most. They express what is unshakable about you and your organization.

Used well, core values guide decisions and give you the vocabulary to explain your actions. For your leadership team or board, defining a well-crafted set of values and using them to consider alternatives will lift discussions to a higher level. Keeping a focus on values as a group considers market analyses and financial projections reminds people to test the options along another dimension. It forces you to consider what you want your actions to say and prepares you to communicate the message.

So, what makes a well-crafted set of core values? In their classic, Built to Last, Jerry Porras and Jim Collins presented the impact that “a small set of timeless guiding principles” had in building great corporations. It makes sense that core values are much more critical in the social sector where, to succeed, you have to open not only wallets, but hearts.

Great core values need to be:

  • Intrinsically meaningful and inspirational

  • Resonant with personal values of individuals in your organization

  • Demonstrably central to what your organization does and how it does it

  • Essential to your organization’s identity over time and through changes

  • Values the organization keeps, despite challenging circumstances.

Above all, your core values must be true and real and woven through all aspects of your organization, so they are unavoidable aspects of the culture.

Equally important, leaders have to live up to them, which is the hard work, as Patrick Lencioni described in his 2002 HBR article, Make Your Values Mean Something.

Organizations that successfully define and live by their core values have a powerful tool for engaging and expanding the internal and external circles of people whom they serve and who sustain them.

Crises of any kind cause us to take stock of what matters and what lasts. If you want to convey conviction, stability and continuity in the face of dramatic, unnerving change, spend the time to define your organization’s core values. They just might be the most useful item in your figurative Go Bag during the next crisis.

Coming Next: What might a crisis teach you about your mission?

1 Comment

Sep 13, 2021

I loved reading this, Cynthia! It is so true that some of our most valuable assets are intangibles, and their worth shows clearly in extreme circumstances. For organizations, this is key.

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