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Core Values 101: The Ultimate Guide and Core Values List

Arthur Worsley
by Arthur Worsley
M.A. Psychology, Oxford. McKinsey Alum. Founder & Editor at TAoL.

Looking for the ultimate guide to corporate and personal core values?

You’re in the right place!

Here’s what you’ll find on this page…

What Are Core Values?

Core values are an agreed set of fundamental beliefs and priorities that help an individual or group of people make consistent, high-integrity decisions.

They’re a prioritised list of what YOU think matters most.

The most effective folks I know (and the best companies in the world) all work from clear mission and value statements.

Their mission statement keeps them focussed on “What” they want to achieve (having impact or earning profits by helping people achieve a goal).

Their core values statement keeps them focussed on “How” they want to achieve it. Where trade-offs must be made, core values tell them what to prioritise first.

What Core Values Aren’t…

NOTE: A common mistake many people make is confusing core values with character traits.

A character trait is a distinguishing quality or characteristic of a person’s behavior, like honesty, integrity or respect. (See this ultimate guide to character traits for a deep-dive.)

core value is ANYTHING that you value when taking action or making decisions.

Core values can include e.g., your partner’s happiness, time with your kids and getting 8 hours of sleep (personal core values) or e.g., customer satisfaction, fair and meaningful work opportunities and returning a profit to shareholders (company core values).

Here’s a little diagram to help illustrate:

Core Values vs. Character Traits

The point is: While all character traits can be used as core values, not all core values have to be character traits.

We’ll come back to this later when we talk about crafting core value statements.

For now though, let’s talk about…

Personal Core Values

Your personal core values are the guiding principles behind your decision making at home, at school or at your work.

And here’s the thing: You already have a set of personal core values, even if you’ve never thought them through (or written them down).

You are constantly making micro-decisions to put your work before your health, or your integrity before your happiness, or your faith before your desires…

We all are.

But here’s the difference between people who’ve taken the time to think about and write down their personal core values and those who haven’t…

People who think about, write down and regularly review their personal core values act faster, more consistently and enjoy a greater sense of purpose.

Why? Because they know what matters to them; they have clear rules to guide and correct their behaviour; and their “How” also acts as a “Why to fall back on, even when they’re overwhelmed or their goals fall apart.

Those same advantages also hold true for…

Company Core Values

The best companies in the world all work from a clear mission and set of core values.

How do I know that? Because I worked for the consulting firm that helped many of them put those mission and value statements in place (McKinsey).

And I saw, first hand, the power that a clearly defined and well role-modeled set of corporate values has on company culture and profitability.

Why are company core values so important? Because, when done well, they work exactly like personal core values, just on a much bigger level.

A clear set of company core values helps every single person in the organization (from the CEO to the interns) make consistent decisions with confidence.

When the organizational culture values sustainability or human rights, you know what you can and can’t compromise on when negotiating deals or partnerships.

When the corporate culture values integrity, honesty or safety, you know that you won’t get fired for doing the right thing instead of the thing that’s most profitable.

When the company culture values work-life balance, you know you can stand up to your manager and say no if they try and force you to work on the weekend.

By crafting a clear values system for the organization, leaders empower consistent and independent stewardship of what matters most at every level of the business.

So what do these core values looks like?

Let’s look at a handful of examples…

List of Core Values

When thinking about common core values it’s helpful to think about who, what and how:

  • Who are the stakeholders you value in your decision making;
  • What are the outcomes you want them to experience; and
  • How you’ll behave as you deliver those outcomes.

Let’s look at McKinsey’s mission and core values statement to clarify.

While your major who and what will usually be covered in your mission statement, e.g.,

  • McKinsey Mission: “To help our clients (who) make distinctive, lasting, and substantial improvements in their performance (what) and to build a great firm (who) that attracts, develops, excites, and retains exceptional people. (what)

Your values might dig deeper to focus on other stakeholders or outcomes, e.g.,

  • preserve client (who) confidences (what); or
  • develop (what) one another (who)…

While your hows will talk about your behavior more generally, e.g.,

  • observe high ethical standards (how); or
  • sustain a caring meritocracy (how).

Let’s check out more examples in our list of core values below…

Examples of “Who” In Core Values…

Examples of “Who” in a core values statement might include (A-Z):

  • Customers/clients;
  • Church;
  • Community;
  • Company;
  • Country;
  • Employees;
  • Environment
  • Family;
  • Friends;
  • Partners;
  • Shareholders;
  • State;
  • Team; or even your
  • God(s).

These are the stakeholders you value when making decisions.

Examples of “What” In Core Values…

Examples of “What” in a core values statement might include (A-Z):

  • Comfort;
  • Fame;
  • Growth;
  • Happiness;
  • Health;
  • Human rights;
  • Opportunity;
  • Peace of mind;
  • Performance;
  • Pleasure;
  • Popularity;
  • Profitability;
  • Recognition;
  • Satisfaction;
  • Security;
  • Self-respect;
  • Speed;
  • Status;
  • Sustainability; or
  • Wealth.

These are the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) or success factors you care about delivering for the stakeholders you’ve identified.

Examples of “How” In Core Values…

And examples of “How” in a core values statement might include:

  • Authenticity;
  • Autonomy;
  • Balance;
  • Boldness;
  • Compassion;
  • Fairness;
  • Faith
  • Fun;
  • Competency;
  • Dependability;
  • Equality;
  • Hard work;
  • Honesty;
  • Love;
  • Loyalty;
  • Poise;
  • Stewardship;
  • Sustainability;
  • Teamwork; or
  • Trust.

These are the character traits you or your organisation will aspire to embody as you deliver your “What”s to your “Who”s day-to-day.

Note: There’s for more ideas you might find it helpful to download TAoL’s free list of 800 negative, neutral and positive character traits.

Real Life Examples of Core Values

We’ll get into a step-by-step guide to writing a core values statement very shortly.

In the meantime, one of the best ways to understand how who, what and why fit together on a core values statement is to look at some real life examples.

I’ve linked to a handful of organisational core value statements below, but the best thing you can do right now if you’re serious about writing your own is to think through a handful or people, companies or organisations whose values inspire you and Google “XXX mission” and “XXX core values” now.

Note: If you’re working on your personal core values and the person you think of is someone you know, why not sit down with or email them and ask them directly? Conversations with loved ones or mentors about core values are some of the most interesting, meaningful and informative conversations you’ll ever have.

Here are a handful or organisational core value statements I’ve picked for you:

For-profit companies:

Non-profit organisations:

Military groups:

The list of fantastic real life examples is endless.

(BONUS: I talk A LOT about mission, vision and values in the 6-week TRACKTION Masterclass and Community. If you’d like to see how I write them, link them to what I do every day and even see my live, real life examples then go check that out.)

Core values statements come in many shapes and sizes, but if you’ve found a few examples of your own, or checked out some of the links above, you should be getting familiar with some of the more popular core values and formats.

Which begs the question…

How Do You Identify YOUR Core Values?

Let’s start with how to identify personal core values then talk about company core values…

How To Identify Personal Core Values.

Here are 5 simple steps to creating a personal core values statement:

  1. Grab a pen and paper;
  2. List the Who’s, What’s and How’s that matter to you;
  3. Prioritise the list;
  4. Turn it into a core values statement; and
  5. Test it, refine it and repeat.

Let’s look at each in more detail…

1. Grab a pen and paper.

Your brain is NOT very good at keeping lots of different thoughts in short-term memory so you will find it MUCH easier to think clearly if you get stuff out of your head and on paper.

2. List the Who’s, What’s and How’s that matter to you.

Here’s a recap from the section on who, what and how above…

  • Who are the stakeholders you value in your decision making;
  • What are the outcomes you want them to experience; and
  • How describes how you’ll behave to deliver those outcomes.

DON’T hesitate to borrow from the list of core values or real life examples above.

DON’T worry about filtering what comes out. Write EVERYTHING down, even if the thought seems or sounds silly before or as soon as you’ve finished writing it.

Keeping an open mind and avoiding filtering (at this stage) creates more space in your head for the good thoughts to get out in the open.

3. Prioritise the list.

If your core values statement is too long, you’ll find it hard to remember (and live by).

The goal then, is to cut your long list of core values down to just 10 or fewer most important values statements. (There’s a reason there are only e.g., 10 commandments in Christianity and e.g., 10 percepts in Taoism).

To prioritise your core values:

  1. Do a rough pass: Trust your gut to eliminate as many less important and highlight as many most important core values as you can; then
  2. Do a fine pass: Pick two core values on your list and ask yourself: “If I had to pick between one of these core values when making a decision, which one would be more important.” Repeat until you’ve ranked all the core values statements on your list.

The fine pass process is hard work and emotionally draining. Don’t be afraid to split it out over several short sessions.

TIP: The more core values you eliminate on the rough pass, the faster the fine pass will go.

When you’re done, take the top 10 core values on your list and…

4. Turn it into a core values statement;

Make any further edits and feel to group the remaining values on your core values statement if it makes sense (McKinsey“>see how McKinsey does it here).

Then write them out one last time on a clean sheet of paper (or into a digital note).

Don’t be afraid to decorate and format your core values statement nicely.

I’ll talk about making core values stick in the next section but for now, it’s important that your core values statement is something that’s easy and enjoyable to read.

And finally…

5. Test it, refine it and repeat.

Here’s the thing…

You will NOT write the perfect core values statement on your first pass.

And that’s OK.

Review your core values statement often (I read mine every morning).

Get out there and see how if feels to live by the values you’ve set.

Then constantly tweak and refine them as you gather more data.

Your personal core values statement is NOT a set-it-and-forget-it instruction manual.

It’s a living document that will reflect not only your constantly improving understanding of what really matters to you, but also the fact that what matters to you constantly changes as YOU and your life change around it.

The important thing is you’ve taken the first and hardest step in your journey.

And the only way to version 100 is though version 1.

How To Identify Company Core Values.

The process for identifying company core values is identical to identifying personal core values with one major difference…

Collaboration Is King.

You have two choices when putting together a company’s core values:

  1. Top down: You can get a few people in the room, decide on the values and then tell the rest of the company to follow suite; or
  2. Bottom up: You can get every stakeholder (or as many as possible) in the business to help co-create the values that will drive the company culture.

The advantages of the top-down approach are ease and speed.

The advantages of the bottom-up approach is that the organisation is MUCH more likely to support and live-by a set of values everyone feels like they’ve had a chance to contribute and agree to.

The Third Way.

There is a middle way between the top-down and bottom-up approach that can be useful if:

  1. The leaders of a company have a clear vision for their values but still want to get buy in from the broader organisation; and/or
  2. It’s not practical to regularly revisit a core values statement from the bottom up (as part of e.g., an annual town hall).

And that’s to allow departments/sub-groups of the organisation to craft their own core values statements based off the top-down/company-wide vision.

For example, when I first started at McKinsey (which has a strong set of top-down core values), the leadership gathered all the analysts in the London office at an off-site and helped us craft our own “Analyst Values Statement”.

We followed a group version of the process I outline above for writing a personal core values statement but with the company core values statement as a major input/guidelines to our thought process (i.e., we couldn’t produce anything that went against the company’s core values).

Result? We felt engaged, empowered and bought into a customised core value statement that was guided by and complimentary to the company’s core values.

And the process could be (and was) repeated, quickly and economically on a much more regular basis than a full rewrite of McKinsey’s overall vision.

Simple, yet powerful stuff.

Which leads us to our final and perhaps most important question of all…

How Do You Make Core Values Stick?

So you’ve decided on your personal core values or you’ve crafted a company core value statement.

Next problem: How do you make those core values stick?

How do you stop them from ending up in a drawer or in a frame on the wall and being completely forgotten about of ignored day-to-day?

Here are 4-things you can do to make sure your core values stick:

  1. Talk and think about core values ALL OF THE TIME;
  2. Role model the core values for other people around you;
  3. Create consequences for not sticking to the core values; and
  4. Get re-buy-in on a regular basis.

Let’s look at each in more detail…

1. Talk and think about core values ALL OF THE TIME.

If you’ve followed the instructions above then you should feel pretty confident that your core values represent the whos, whats and hows that matter to you more than anything else.

Result? You shouldn’t feel afraid to evangelise them ALL OF THE TIME.

DON’T relegate your mission and core values statements to your archives or a part of your company’s career site that nobody ever visits.

DO look at them EVERY SINGLE DAY and/or put them EVERYWHERE that you (personal values) or your stakeholders (company values) can see them.

Start every meeting with them. Review them whenever you make minor or major strategic decisions. Use them to evaluate your employees. Use them to triage potential-employee résumés.

There should be nothing in the world more important to you than delivering your mission and living by your values.

(TIP: If there is, why aren’t those things on your core values statement?!)

If not, if they don’t feel motivating, or you’re ashamed to share your personal core values or the core values of the company you work for with the world, with your friends, with your family, with your friends, with your clients – something’s wrong.

Either quit and go work for somebody else or go back and redraft them again.

2. Role model the core values for other people around you.

Behavioural change – in a company, a family or any other group – always begins at the top.

If the leaders of a group don’t follow the company values, nobody will.

  • If you’re a leader: make sure you role model the values you want others to live by;
  • If you’re a follower: judge your leaders by what they DO not by what they say.

If you’re working for someone who can’t follow their own rules you have three choices:

  1. Call on them to change their bad behaviour;
  2. Agitate for a change in leadership; or
  3. Go work for somebody else.

Everyone makes mistakes. But leaders who consistently fail to role-model core values, or who punish those who call out bad behaviour that goes against the organisation’s guiding principles are leaders you don’t want to follow.

3. Create consequences for not sticking to the core values.

Right now, I live in Bali, Indonesia. And every day I watch hundreds of people drive motorbikes too fast, without helmets and even up on the sidewalk to skip traffic.

Why? Because despite Indonesia having laws against all of those dangerous behaviours, nobody ever gets punished for breaking the rules.

The same goes for core values, if there are no fair and equal consequences for transgressing the company’s core values then they might as well not be there in the first place.

For personal core values, that shouldn’t be an issue. Just acting in a way that’s not aligned with the things that you value will create a feeling of guilt and/or disconnect that will automatically make you feel awful.

For company core values, it’s essential that review, governance and reporting systems all prioritise core values. It’s also important that the consequences for consistent transgressions are clearly, consistently and fairly applied through the company’s evaluation, reward and disciplinary systems (i.e., they must apply to EVERYONE in the organisation).

I know this sounds like hard work, but at the end of the day – nothing should be more important than the things you’ve decided are the most important.

4. Get buy-in on a regular basis.

Especially in group situations, it’s important to make sure you get buy in and re-buy-in to the core values of an organisation on a regular and meaningful basis.

That can be as simple as asking the whole organisation (or even just yourself) to “re-sign” a copy of the core values statement on an annual or semi-annual basis.

Or it can be as complicated as revisiting and redrafting a company’s core values as fast as you or your company are changing (i.e., more change needs more frequent adjustments).

Why? Because it’ll make sure that everyone has recently looked at and signed up to living by the company’s core values.

Which means everybody knows what’s expected of them. And nobody can claim they didn’t realise what they were doing wasn’t values-driven if they decide to go break a few rules.

6 Steps For Success: Here’s What You Need to Do Next…

If you came here today to learn more about core values, how to identify them or how to craft a company or personal core values statement then you’ve stumbled upon the right place.

Here’s what you need to do next:

  1. Revisit the start of this guide to make sure you understand what core values really are (and especially how they differ from character traits);
  2. Read or find some real life examples of core values from companies or people who inspire you using Google, your email or the links in this article.
  3. Draft a long list of core values by (a) emptying your head and (b) using the list of core values (who, what, how) I’ve provided above. (Optionally: do this in a group setting with all of the stakeholders in your group.)
  4. Refine those core values into a first draft of your core values statement.
  5. Think through exactly how you’ll make your core values stick.
  6. Never stop talking about and refining your perspective on what matters most.

That’s all for today.

I hope you enjoyed this ultimate guide to crafting and sticking to your core values.

And until next time, be awesome, do the right things and go well.

Core Values: Frequently Asked Questions

What Are Core Values?

Core values are the things that matter most to you when you're acting on or making a decision. They often include elements of Who, What and How: Who you care about; What outcome you want to give to them; and How you'll behave as you deliver those outcomes. For more (including a step-by-step guide to identifying and writing company and personal core values statements), check out TAoL's Ultimate Guide to Core Values.

What Are MY Core Values?

Your core values are 5-10 things that are most important to you when you're acting on or making a decision. You already have some core values, even if you haven't thought about them or written them down yet.

Not sure what they are? Or how to get them into a core values statement? Or make them stick? Check out TAoL's Ultimate Guide to Core Values for a step-by-step guide, real life examples and more.

How To Write Core Values?

To write your core values you need to:

  1. Grab a pen and paper;
  2. List the Who’s, What’s and How’s that matter to you;
  3. Prioritise the list;
  4. Turn it into a core values statement; and
  5. Test it, refine it and repeat.
For more help with each step, including some real life examples, check out TAoL's Ultimate Guide to Core Values.

Why Are Core Values Important?

Core values are important because they act as a compass that helps guide (and evaluate) actions and decision making.

Core values are especially important when working with groups of people (like in a company or charity) as they create clear guidelines for what kinds of behaviour and partnerships are acceptable at every level of the organisation.

Clear core values create a clear company culture, which improves decision making and evaluation systems, which empowers people at every level to make confident, autonomous decisions that are aligned with the organisation's main mission.

For more (including a step-by-step guide to identifying and writing company and personal core values statements), check out TAoL's Ultimate Guide to Core Values.

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