Are you using your Core Values to stand out?

In today’s competitive environment it’s more important than ever to have a competitive advantage – something that puts you above the general fray of your industry.

Maybe you have a unique technology advantage…a patented something or other that no one else has.

Maybe you were first in your space and really own the marketplace (95 of the top 100 companies use our service…).

Maybe you’re faster, better a different business model – there can be lots of ways to build a competitive advantage.

However if you’re stuck on what yours might be, you should look at your core values and your vision as a possible way to stand out and make yourself different from the crowd.

Do you have customers that buy from you because of what you stand for?  Great employees that do more than you expect because they believe in the bigger picture of where you’re taking the business?

I’ve written before about how to find your core values, but even more importantly you can actively use those core values as a differentiator…a competitive advantage.

(photo by Zach Dischner)

Putting your Core Values and Vision to work

Here are 3 ways to use your Core Values and Vision that can take you from being an average business to one that stands above the competition in every way!

Steer the ship

When you started the year, you took the time to layout where you’re going, but that activity isn’t a one time event. Just like ships on the ocean are constantly re-charting their course based on conditions, you will need to adjust your steering at a minimum once every 3 months or so (if you’re growing quickly you’ll want to do it more often than that).

You likely go through an annual planning process to set goals and priorities for the coming year. Your vision and core values should be the touch stone for that process. As you go through potential opportunities, run it through the Vision and Core Values filter – here’s an example:

If we pursue acquisition of a specific competitor, will that move us forward in meaningful way towards our long term vision? 

Does that company share any of our core values?

Will the outcome create a bad situation or be at cross purposes with who we are? 

What core values will this outcome support?

That same thought process should be used in your quarterly planning sessions as well – the course corrections are likely smaller, but just as important. The sooner you can detect that you’re going off course the less damage it will do.

When you are making decisions that resonate with who you are as an organization as opposed to just looking at the financial side of it, you’ll start standing out.

When you use your core values in a public way it enables everyone to be pulling in the same direction.  Your employees are faced with decisions all of the time – bureaucratic businesses run these decisions up the chain of command, causing slow response, indecision and poor outcomes.

In a high performing organization that clearly understands and shares core values, decisions become much easier.  As an example, at Nordstroms – employees know and share the core philosophy of the company, so when a customer complains they just take care of it without having to get approvals or hold anything up.


Next Steps – Steer the Ship:

  • Make sure you’ve uncovered your core values
  • Find the stories that emphasize those core values and share them at company meetings to reinforce what they are and how important they are
  • Start actively using your list of values as a decision making tool during quarterly and annual planning meetings

Getting and keeping the right people

As a business grows, a key to ongoing success is bringing in the right people. Part of that process is making sure the people being hired have the skills needed…but more importantly the new hires need to share the core values of the organization.

Southwest Airlines is famous for their approach of ‘Hiring for attitude and Training for Aptitude’.  They understand that you can’t train friendly personalities but you can train skills.

Using your core values as a very active and visible part of your hiring process will help you in two ways:  finding the right people and keeping the right people.

Finding:  If you accurately describe the kind of people you’re looking for (i.e. we need people who can make hard decisions on their own) then the applicants will self-select based on the job descriptions. People who are excited about the core values you describe will step up and those who don’t fit will move on and look for something else.

As a more extreme example: shares a very clear view of how they operate as a company, if that doesn’t resonate with you, you’re not applying for a job with woot!  (Along the same lines – here is a very funny letter from the woot! CEO on their recent decision to be acquired by Amazon)

Use your Core Values as a key criterion for the interviewing process. Add questions designed to draw out examples and stories of how the applicant fits with your core values and then grade them on how well they fit. If they are perfect from an experience and skills standpoint but only 60% fit when it comes to Core Values, you don’t want to hire them.

Keeping:  A major part of the performance review process in your company should be a check-up on how people are living up to the core values. If one of your core values is ‘Helps First’ but you have an employee that doesn’t act that way then you’ll likely need to let them go (give them a chance to address the issue first).

The biggest risk to keeping great people is that if you don’t truly live your core values on a day to day basis then those values become watered down. Your business loses its identity and you will drive great employees away because the company no longer stands for anything (or what they thought it stood for).

Next Steps – Getting and keeping the right people

  • Develop a clear list of your core values, your 10 commandments, whatever it is that really describes what you are and why you do things.
  • Use core values in your job descriptions and interview process
  • Actively use core values in a regular employee review process

Being Authentic with Customers

People do business with people that they know, like and trust. By having a clear, powerful and authentic set of core values that you live up to as a company, people can get to know you and if they resonate with those values they will want to do business with you.

As an example, online shoe retailer Zappos has one of their core value as ‘Create Fun and a little Weirdness’:

“One of the things that makes Zappos different from a lot of other companies is that we value being fun and being a little weird. We don’t want to become one of those big companies that feels corporate and boring. We want to be able to laugh at ourselves. We look for both fun and humor in our daily work.”

Some potential customers are going to look at that (or experience it) and find it very intriguing and attractive – that’s who Zappos wants to do business with. Others may not get it or find it offensive in some way – they’re not a good fit as a customer for Zappos…and that’s okay.

By being clear and living up to who they are, Zappos will have their fans talking about them and making it clear who might want to hang out with them in the first place.


Build on your differences:  A competitive advantage is a core fundamental difference that your customers find meaningful and your competitors can’t easily duplicate.  Here’s an example:

37Signals is a software company that specializes in Web Based applications. They have a clear set of Core Values they operate with (and share on their website) that are very powerful – here’s one that especially differentiates them:

Software that requires training is failed software. Our products are intuitive. You’ll pick them up in seconds or minutes, not hours, days or weeks. We don’t sell you training because you don’t need it.

Assuming they consistently live up to that core value means they are delivering software other companies can’t easily compete with.  It works as a competitive advantage because other companies can’t (or won’t) mandate ‘no training allowed’ as a fundamental approach because it’s really hard to do.


It comes back to authentically sharing who you are, what’s important to you and makes you different.  Not everyone will like you, but the ones that do will feel strongly about it and will talk about you…as Seth Godin would put it, you will be remarkable, which is a nice place to be.


Next Steps – being Authentic with customers

  • Make sure your core values…at least the ones that impact customers or your service are spelled out clearly where people can see them
  • Constantly focus on living up to who you are and what your values are

What examples of companies have you seen lately who stand out because of their core values?  What could you do with your company’s core values that would really stand out?  Share your thoughts below, I’d love to hear them.

Shawn Kinkade  Kansas City Business Coach