When I heard that Pennsylvania Treasurer Rob McCord had recently resigned and plead guilty to attempted extortion, I can't say that I was very surprised. I remember Rob from his early days in the first tech bubble when he ran the Eastern Technology Council (ETC). Even twenty years ago, people talked about Rob's ambitions for political office (presumably Governor) and how he used the ETC to gain influence. I didn't know Rob well, but it struck me back in the 90's that he and I didn't share the same core values. Today, I know that is the case, because not only would I never try to extort campaign contributions from potential donors, but the thought would never have crossed my mind.
Whether you're looking for a job or building company, look beyond corporate culture to assess - or establish - core values. The US National Park Service has a good and simple definition for core values: "The values underlie our work, how we interact with each other, and which strategies we employ to fulfill our mission. The core values are the basic elements of how we go about our work." It is not easy to establish and communicate values. A lot of companies study and publish their values and many don't do it very well. They commonly proclaim high level attributes and expect teams and partners to understand and live by them. How many companies think "Integrity" is a core value? Too many. The problem is that Integrity is a high level concept and doesn't necessarily make it clear how we should or will behave.
Values dictate Behaviors
The best way to express your company's core values is through a set of behaviors - something that is easy to understand and simple to follow. "Integrity" might mean different things to different people. "Never offer a deal we wouldn't accept ourselves" is a behavior that demonstrates integrity. When I was working for Marvin Weinberger at Infonautics in the mid-90's, he developed a "Good Business Pledge" which did just that - show us how to live our core business values through specific behaviors. If you click on the image to the right, you can see that pledge. I also think that Voice Systems Engineering did a good job communicating their values when I was working with them - actionable behaviors instead of high level concepts.
YFS Magazine (Young, Fabulous & Self-Employed, LOL) shared the values of 15 "winning" companies. Take a look at them and see the differences. Compare the values of Zappos and Tom's Shoes with those of Accenture and Barnes & Noble. I don't know what "Stewardship" means (Accenture) or how to live by it, but I better know what to do when am told to "Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded" (Zappos).
In 1997, I was deciding between taking the CTO role at two companies. One (CDNOW) was run openly and authentically by young twin brothers, a somewhat scrappy operation with investment from a few low-key angels. The other company was founded by a couple of financial services execs and funded by the region's biggest institutional investor. Both were great opportunities with a lot of potential. After numerous conversations with each team, I assessed that my core values aligned more closely with those at CDNOW and I accepted that role. The following day, I get a call from two high-power board members of the other company who proceeded to tell me that I was making a mistake and called my decision "stupid." That behavior pretty much told me that my intuition was right, that the core values of the second company weren't ones under which I could do business. Core values were the sole factor for my making the decision.
Don't underestimate the importance of knowing your core values - or those of others with whom you interact. Most of us are intuitive about them in our personal and business lives. Still, there is a lot of benefit - especially if you're running a company - to write them down, share them with your team, partners, customers and the public. Give those you work with a sense of who you are, how you make decisions, and how they should expect you to behave. If Rob McCord had done that two decades ago, and let his constituents evaluate his values through his behaviors, then there's a good chance he may have never been elected to a public office.