Defining your company’s core values? Growth with a rock-solid core

Defining your company’s core values is one of the most important cultural discovery steps in the Scaling Up methodology. The word says it all: Core values have a place at the core – the heart – of your business. Together with your core competencies (what can I do or possess that no one else does) and your core purpose (why do we do what we do), core values form your ideological core. The athletes among us know that without a strong core, you can’t hit a ball or lift weights. The stronger your core is, the fitter you are and the better you perform. This is not only true for athletes, but also for your business. 

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast ” – Peter Drucker

Core values occupy a special place in this triangle. After all, they are the absolute foundation of your company culture. Companies where everyone not only knows the company’s well-defined core values, but also lives by them on a daily basis, are 2-0 ahead on the cultural scoreboard. By defining the core values of your business, you ensure stability, strength, control and profit. 

In this blog, we explain why your company’s core values are so important, how to identify core values, how to define them and how to articulate them. We also tell you how to bring core values to life and keep them alive in your business. Finally, throughout the core values blog, we provide examples of how to put core values into practice.


1. What are a company's core values?

Core values are basically a company’s code of conduct, and that’s how we do things here. Core values are a reflection of the behaviour that is happening in the company right now. The core values are therefore not ambitious. If the office is always messy, you can’t solve the problem by introducing the core value of tidiness.

Core values: A set of rules of conduct
So while the word value can sometimes feel a bit abstract, core values are actually quite concrete. They’re all about behaviour, as you can see. How do we behave towards each other? And to our customers, our suppliers? How do we treat others and how do we want to be treated? Adhering to core values can sometimes have unpleasant consequences on another front. Because what people often don’t realize is that the word value is part of core values. So a core value is really valuable. In a company with a core value where the team always comes before the individual, an extremely good sales manager who sells tons of products but never raises his hand if a colleague needs help can suddenly find out that his contract will not be renewed. If one of the core values is that we are loyal and don’t play games, then you may have to ruin a deal that could make you rich because you have to stab a new investor in the back. Core values are not empty concepts that you refer to whenever you want. Core values are make or break. They are non-negotiable. Core values are essentially a set of deeply rooted principles that act as a yardstick for your entire business and by which you measure everything you do as a company.

2. Core values, mission and vision: the place of core values in your core

Core values, mission and vision (or core values, core purpose and BHAG from the Scaling Up methodology) are the three components that make up the core of your business. In the One Page Strategic Plan (OPSP), these three are at the forefront for a reason. They form the company’s almost static, ideological identity. 

The vision or BHAG is the bigger goal: What do we really want to achieve? Core Purpose is about meaning: Why do we get up in the morning for our business? What intrinsic motivation drives us?

Finally, your company’s core values lie beneath these two components. Core values are the voice in the back of your head on your Core Purpose, and core values are the paths to your BHAG that you don’t want to take. Core values protect you from a potential deal with the devil, who can wipe out meaning in one fell swoop. What do we really stand for and how can I look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day?

Core values, mission and vision are therefore set in stone. There’s the occasional scrape, but there’s never any change. These elements underpin all the choices you make in the long and short term. As your business grows, it becomes increasingly important to keep your culture and people together through core values, mission and vision.

3. Defining your company's core values

In fact, the phrase defining your company’s core values isn’t quite right. You can’t define core values: They already exist. In fact, it always starts with the entrepreneur. They start from a vision, a personal dream or an unmissable opportunity, a business. At first alone, or sometimes together, you start your start-up with lots of energy and drive. You work very hard on your products, sales, partnerships, administration, you occasionally go to work on Sundays, and before you know it, you’ve hired your first employee. One becomes two, two becomes four, and voilà: Suddenly, you’re no longer a sole trader, you have a business. It’s rare in this start-up period that the entrepreneur thinks on their own: “You know what would be a good idea to spend time on? To start defining the core values of my business! I need a set of rules of behaviour for myself anyway.” In a start-up, it’s all about the entrepreneur. His emotions, intuition and head almost automatically guide the business. So the company’s core values are also in full force at this point. They’re just not on paper, but are the unconscious, automatic behaviour of the entrepreneur.

Defining core values for a scale-up company
So you can’t define the core values, they are there from the start. As your business grows and you add managers, employees and teams, it’s time to define your core values. This way you can easily explain and communicate your values to everyone, which – if all goes well – are already felt and lived by the majority of your business. Core values come from your subconscious mind and automatic actions and are a concrete set of behavioural rules.

Formulating core values is something you do together
If they’re always there, that’s how they are on paper, right? Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Since you, as a business owner, are no longer alone, it’s important that you view the formulation of core values as a journey of discovery. A journey of discovery that you take together. We don’t believe you need expensive consultancies and hundreds of hours of advice to determine and articulate your core values. At ScaleUp Company, we often work with the leadership team in an energetic session to find and articulate the core values. It’s not the only way. You can also set the core values with another select group or, if you facilitate well, even with the entire company. The message is: Do it together.

Examples of core values exercises
Once you’ve gathered your team to identify your core values, you can start working together. We often see companies use examples of core values as a starting point. You take a list of values that include words like professionalism, pro activity and customer friendliness , go through them together and see if they fit. “Yeah, I guess we’re professionals. Should we choose it? That leaves us with four more to go, right?” There are plenty of examples of core values, but unfortunately, they’re of little use to you. So what do you do? Turn it upside down. Don’t start with a value, start with behaviour.

“Begin with the end in mind” – the second habit, Steven Covey

The Marching Exercise
At ScaleUp Company, we use a variety of methods and ways of working to encourage groups to get to the core of the behaviour that characterize their business. One of the exercises we always do is the “Marching” exercise: You want to open a branch on Mars because you’ve seen with your keen eye for expansion that the green men desperately need your company’s products. However, due to the overheated labour market on Mars, you can’t hire Martians to set up a business for you. So you need to send out a team to get things running on the red ball of fire. It’s easier said than done because no one on your team speaks the language, and even the Martians can’t understand your COO’s strong Cape Town accent. There’s only one thing to do: You send the team whose behaviour makes it immediately clear to the marchers what your company does and what you stand for as a company. From this observation of behaviour, the green branch manager knows exactly how to translate it to the local market. And now the key question: Who do you want to send off (and do you want back on the shuttle once the store is up and running)? Who’s going to march for you? Which team members don’t have to say anything, but show through their behaviour what your company stands for? Who in your company is the embodiment of your culture?

If all goes well, you now have a list of names. Then you engage in a dialogue: Why this group of people? What behaviours do the people on the list exhibit that make you trust them with the wordless mission? A next list is created: A list of specific examples of behaviour. Where else and with whom else do we see this behaviour? Do we act on the underlying behavioural principle in all situations? And is it really a decisive point? If you had to choose between getting a million now and adhering to this behaviour, would you choose the behaviour 100% of the time? If you can confidently answer these questions in the affirmative and label them as the final sentence, you have a true core value for your business.

4. Company core values - examples

There are plenty of examples of core values. You Googled a list in no time. And in many companies, you can probably find them on the How we work page. But if you’ve been paying attention, we’re convinced that copying your core values or using examples of other companies’ core values will only get in the way of your own journey of discovery. There’s a reason why core values are the foundation of your One Page Strategic Plan. They are the building blocks of your DNA. It’s truly unique.

Examples of unique core values
The fact that your company’s core values are the foundation of its ideological core, your company culture, doesn’t mean that your core values themselves have to be unique. We can assure you that all the core values your company has are also found in hundreds of other businesses. It’s not a big problem. It’s not about the word, the value, but the behaviour that the core values represent. And it can be completely different behaviour for two companies with the same example of a core value. We can imagine Greenpeace and WWF both having a core value along the lines of ” Nature First ” or something similar. But while Greenpeace fulfils this value by chaining themselves to oil tankers and throwing paint at politicians, WWF walks around with its collection box and makes educational packages for kindergartens. Examples of core values should be sought in behaviours, not in glossaries.

Redefining core values
That’s why we don’t believe in relying on lists of core values or examples of core values from other companies. What we stand for is describing your company’s core values in your own unique way that fits your company’s DNA.

For starters, throw your list of core values in the bin. Empty expressions mean nothing. What you’re looking for is a sentence, a short paragraph that sounds great and reflects your organisation’s unique tone-of-voice. Once you realize that there are no limits, it becomes really fun. So get started anyway by making a list of examples of core values and the creative wording that is unique to the company they fit:

  • Pro activity – Be a wolf, not a sheep
  • Collaboration – Nobody is beyoncé
  • Work hard, play hard – “Work hard, play hard” is a delusion of wimps if you ask us. After hard work, we celebrate success as if it were 1999. 
  • Collaboration – winning is something we all do together
  • Ownership – For us, saying yes is doing it
  • Integritet – Honesty is not only the best policy: it’s our policy. We communicate our expectations and how we like to be treated. Integrity is the cornerstone of our behaviour and the beating heart of our product. Profit will never influence our rankings or ratings. 
  • Customer satisfaction – 😃

You see. There are so many values and so many examples to describe them. Words, images, emojis: Turn it into a song if it feels right. Your company’s core values are a personification of your culture. The only limitation when defining your company’s core values is yourself.

5. Working with core values

You’ve been to Mars – successfully – and have written down a handful of core values for your business in such a way that they fit your company’s DNA perfectly. How do you make sure these wonderful core values don’t get buried under all the other great plans? How do you make core values really prove their worth?

Draft list of core values
Start gently. Once you have a draft list of appropriately worded core values, don’t immediately present them and put them into the employee handbook. Let them simmer for a few months or even longer. Put them on the agenda of your weekly management meeting and see if you can see examples of behaviours in the company that support your company’s core values. Or mention the opposite behaviour, which was immediately responded to. Are you running out of time each week for other meeting points because there are so many examples? Then you can probably highlight the core value you’ve written in pencil with a highlighter. Have you run out of behavioural examples after the first week? So get out the eraser and go back to the drawing board.

Core values start at the top
A better culture starts with you. This applies to core values in general. The leadership team is a shining example in this regard. The death knell for your culture, for the credibility of your leadership team and the credibility of your core values, is a leadership team that treats core values interchangeably. Behaviour that violates one of your core values and goes uncorrected sends a direct signal to the rest of the company and especially to your A-players. They can work anywhere, why would they want to work for a company that doesn’t stand behind its principles? So live up to them. Everywhere and always, without exception. It’s like parenting: Be clear and consistent.

If you don’t, the awareness of what your culture stands for disappears. The culture can choose its own path and you can no longer correct it because no one knows what you really stand for. A rotten apple can cause havoc very quickly: It happens faster than you think. Are you still letting the terrorist in the form of the extremely talented sales manager stay because the quarter in which it’s supposed to happen is coming up? You won’t be the first to look around after this quarter and not see another A player any more. They all left because you let the terrorist have his way. This is serious shit, these core values.

Core values in practice
Conversely, putting your core values into practice can be done in many different ways. What’s important, as with other parts of the Scaling Up methodology, is that you find and maintain a steady rhythm for putting your core values into practice. A list of examples of how you can put your company’s core values into practice:

  1. Always refer feedback to employees, customers and other partners back to your core values.
  2. Put the core values on the agenda for meetings (weekly, quarterly and annual). Have each member of the leadership team share some stories about core value behaviours.
  3. Give compliments based on core values. For example, ask your team to compliment a colleague or customer on a core value by writing a personalized message. This ensures a boost of energy in your team or customer relationship.
  4. Make core values visible. In the office or online. Make sure employees see the core values every day.
  5. Use the core values to draw attention to your company’s efforts to improve. For example, you could bring up a topic on a quarterly basis that relates to one of the core values.
  6. Use core values in your recruitment and hiring. The first thing that appears on the job posting is the company’s core values. We can assure you that it will save you a lot of time reading CVs from people who aren’t a good fit for your business.
  7. When giving recognition and rewards, be guided by core values. Rewards can provide an extra incentive and you’re also creating new stories.
  8. Make core values and behaviours the first item on the agenda for performance reviews.
  9. In a scale-up business, there are many choices to be made every day. Make sure you make all choices (both daily and strategic) based on your core values. This is one of the hardest, but also one of the most important steps to take.

Example of core values in recruitment
To make the above list a little more concrete, you could test the core values in recruitment and hiring in the following way.

Core value: No bullshit


  • We deliberately lose a battle to win the war
  • We positively challenge each other and help each other stay focused
  • We keep our promises
  • We don’t do blah, blah, blah
  • We don’t play games

Questions in a job interview:

  • Have you ever challenged your manager to stay focused? If so, can you tell us about it?
  • When was the last time you were told that what you said was wrong? And how did you deal with it?
  • When was the last time you broke a promise?
  • When was the last time you bluffed your way through something?

Core value: We are obsessed with our customers


  • We involve our customers in important decisions
  • We never pretend to know better than our customers
  • Bad reviews are an opportunity to get a new ambassador
  • We promise less and deliver more
  • The long-term relationship always takes precedence over a quick win

Questions in a job interview:

  • When was the last time you spoke to an angry customer? How did you deal with it?
  • When was the last time you truly surprised a customer? Can you tell us about it?
  • Have you ever asked a customer for advice? What happened next?
  • When was the last time you lost a customer because of your behaviour?

You see. When your core values and behaviours are well-defined, your culture is suddenly very tangible and testable.

6. Get started with core values

Hopefully, we’ve given you enough tools in this blog to start working with core values in your business. We also know that it can be nice to have a fresh, outside perspective to help you on your journey of discovery.

Scale Up Company offers several workshops and courses that can help you and your organization take the next step in growth.