We entrepreneurs crave competitive advantages. #amiright? That's why I want to talk about developing core values for your business, and four problems they can solve.
Competitive advantages allow our small businesses to get a toehold in an industry. They allow our work to begin to make a difference consistent with our mission and vision. And they allow our companies to survive the early stage and “make it” through to later stages of maturity, growth, and prosperity.
Core values bring much about your business into sharper focus. The opposite of focus—vagueness, randomness, lack of discipline, generality—gets many small businesses into trouble. Creating, launching, and emphasizing your core values mitigates those risks and allows benefits to bloom . . . as we'll soon discover.
Various business problems can be solved, in whole or in part, by introducing core values. Here are four common problems that entrepreneurs and small business owners struggle with, and how core values can address them:
1. You suspect there's something off with your brand positioning
Are you a service professional who isn't quite sure why more prospective clients aren't saying yes to your proposals? Or, perhaps you're building a brand within a competitive market/niche and aren't attracting the levels of traffic and audience growth you expect. And maybe these trends have been real for a while, leading you to think there's something a bit off with how you're positioning yourself.
If you're having that feeling, trust it. Founders and entrepreneurs need to develop a credible sixth sense about their small businesses. This “Spidey sense” is a powerful ally in the struggle against all manner of operational and growth problems.
The problem here may be that your brand positioning just isn't differentiated enough from others in your market. That's where core values come in. Well-conceived core values add depth to your brand. They make you and your brand more authentic, original, and approachable. Ultimately, they serve as magnets that attract and captivate your intended “avatar”—the person you exist to serve and support—by sending clear signals that allow those individuals to match themselves with you.
A word of caution: Don't only develop core values as a brand positioning booster. That risks creating shallow values that look and smell like a marketing gimmick. As we'll see later in this article, core values serve to solve a range of business challenges, many—if not most—of which are internal. An internal focus is good; it speaks to the true essence of core values—what your company believes and how it chooses to conduct itself. That's where the magic of authenticity and originality come from.
Speaking of internal challenges, one of the most common is getting on the same page with your business partner.
2. You're struggling to maintain alignment with your business partner
If you have a business partner, you know the saying is true: a business partnership is much like a marriage. It's filled with hopes and dreams for the future as well as the messy realities of figuring out how to realize those aspirations.
The “figuring it out” demands of a business partnership are bumpy and unavoidable terrain. You will encounter differences of opinion. You will hit decision-making roadblocks. You will not always be on the same page. The goal, therefore, in nurturing a strong and successful relationship with your business partner is to be explicit and intentional about how the relationship will navigate those bumps when you encounter them.
Core values offer a way across such troublesome terrain. They establish a set of shared principles for how to think and behave. They provide common ground to inform decision-making. They clarify the priorities of the business if and when such clarity gets lost in the fog of running the business.
The “conceived together” aspect of core values is critical. The effectiveness of core values is immediately and permanently compromised if you and your business partner didn't conceive them together. You both have to believe in them. You both need to respect them. And in times of difficulty, you both need to defend them. When you and your partner have a common cause for your core values, you're well-positioned to avoid misalignments that run the risk of undermining the relationship and sabotaging the business.
Core values can also have positive effects on relationships beyond that of you and your business partner. Namely, if you have a team—especially if it's an in-house employee team—then core values are a phenomenal mechanism for instituting performance expectations and resolving performance-related issues.
3. Some members of your team aren't performing at the required level
Building a team is equally a paramount joy and hardship of a growing small business.
On the one hand, hiring talented people who bring new perspectives, absorb important responsibilities, and deliver needed results is perhaps the most freeing experience for an entrepreneur. If you've reached this moment in your business, then you're doing many things right. Congratulations!
On the other hand, many founders and entrepreneurs lack the background—and thus instincts and skills—to manage and nurture a team. It's hard work, far harder than it looks from the outside. Job-specific expectations need to be clear for each role. And company-wide standards need to exist to establish performance consistency across the team. As the business owner or co-owner, it's your job to maintain performance levels at all times.
What do you do when someone's performance drops below your expectations? This will inevitably happen. Avoiding the situation because it's uncomfortable is irresponsible. Browbeating the person in punitive terms is not constructive or admirable. And giving soft and vague feedback because that's “being nice” is actually unkind because you deprive the person of a valuable learning opportunity they can use to develop and grow.
Instead of falling into those traps, lean on your core values to guide your performance feedback.
Assuming all of that is true, then your core values allow you to contextualize your performance feedback in terms of the company's core principles of thinking and behaving. Attitude problems and competency problems alike can be addressed by reflecting them against the established and sacred norms—the core values—of the business. While each person has unique job-level expectations, everyone should be held to the same standards of overall etiquette and performance as established by the core values.
Core values aren't only useful for addressing performance issues within your team. They can also be instrumental in recruiting and hiring new talent. If you're struggling to find high-quality candidates for an open position, consider adding your core values into the recruiting mix.
4. You're not attracting remarkable candidates
Putting yourself out there for others to see and judge is an intimidating experience. That's as true in business as it is in dating and life. And it's exactly what awaits you when you reach that wonderfully dreadful moment of recruiting talent for your team.
The intimidation factor is stressful enough. Compounding it is the plausible scenario of not attracting qualified candidates for the position. The What's wrong with me? question is real and haunting. I've known many entrepreneurs who have grown doubtful, even cynical, of recruiting because they've struggled time and again to find a solid match for their open positions. I've felt that twinge before, too; it's like dating a lot and never finding that one person you click with.
There are many explanations for why you may not be garnering quality interest in your job. One big one is that the job description doesn't fully communicate how interesting your company is beyond the tactical details of the job itself. If you describe only the nuts and bolts of the job, you won't attract remarkable people looking for remarkable careers in remarkable workplaces and cultures. Point is: Your job description needs to illustrate much more than just the job; it needs to show the full breadth of your company's purpose and spirit.
Incorporating core values into your outbound recruiting will attract more serious and qualified candidates. Further, once you begin interviewing those candidates, discussing your company's core values can help to establish deeper chemistry with them. This can play a significant or even decisive role in convincing a candidate that your company is right for them.
Those four problems are merely the beginning. Once you've created your core values and begun gaining confidence in using them, look for other problem areas in your business that may be addressed by applying your values to them.
As you go, remember that integrity is the overarching essence of core values. When that integrity is real and pronounced through your values, you'll find yourself equipped with a competitive advantage more powerful than just about anything you could hope for to operate and grow your business.
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