What is the first thing you should do when starting a business?

Ask this in a room full of wannabe entrepreneurs and you’ll hear as many different answers as there are people: you need a great product or service, a logo, a website, a business plan…

I guarantee almost no one will mention the one thing that all businesses need, but very few have: a clear set of values.

Your values are the most important part of your business. Your clients need to know who you are, what you stand for, and what they can expect from you. Your values tell them this.

For you, knowing your values helps set you apart from other businesses and they help you make the right decisions. Your values give you a true north to come back to every single time.

Your values will determine how you treat your employees, how you interact with clients — or even who you sell to, the quality of your products or services and who you buy from. They’ll influence how you market yourself, the words you use on your website, and might even have a bearing on the color of your logo!

There genuinely isn’t an area of your business that won’t be affected by the values you hold or improved once you have a clear understanding of what you stand for.

Yet…how do you know what your values are? And what do you do if you’ve recognized that you hold two values that lie in direct competition with each other? It’s not enough to know which values are important to you and your business; you also need to know which to prioritize. You need to narrow things down to your core values.

When values collide.

Imagine, you’ve just been offered a big new contract. It’s a load of extra work but it’s also highly lucrative. You toss and turn for days, your stress levels are through the roof. Your employees are working at capacity and you haven’t seen your kids for three weekends in a row. But you can’t stop thinking about what the contract would mean for your bottom line. The business owner who has already defined their core company values suffers no sleepless nights. The firm prides itself on providing a great work/life balance for its staff. It’s why staff retention rates are so great and they enjoy a flurry of applications whenever they post a job vacancy. Turning down that enticing contract is regretful but a no-brainer. Balance and doing the right thing wins out over wealth.

Another business owner is approached by a new supplier. The product offered is inferior but far cheaper; it’s unlikely that regular customers would notice the difference. Again, because the company has already defined quality and integrity as two of their core values, there is no need to waste any mental energy on this question. Providing customers with a superior product will always win out over saving a little cash.

Do you know what you would have done in these scenarios?

The likelihood is that if you’re not 100% clear on your own values you might be sitting on the fence. You just might be wasting time and mental energy every day on business decisions, large and small.

The ethical compass.

We believe that each one of us has an ethical compass, helping us choose between right and wrong. However, when it comes to business, and the dilemmas we face daily, it can be hard to define which values we most closely identify with. And even harder to live our values consistently. When we’re in the middle of a storm, that little compass needle can start to swing all over the place!

That’s why we think it’s vital to take some time to define your values before the storm hits. We also realize that sometimes you need a little outside help to figure out your priorities. This is why we’re so thrilled to introduce our new Values Sort assessment activity.

How it works.

Quality, passion, wealth, empathy? They’re probably all fairly important to you, but sometimes you’re going to have to choose one over the other. This is your chance to think about the things that really matter to you in life and in business.

The Values Sort will present you with 30 different value cards. Your job is to sort them out in terms of their relative importance to you. Place each card in one of the five columns. The order of the values within each column does not matter, the important part is which column you place them in.

You’re allowed the following number of cards in each column:

  1. Most Important – 4
  2. More Important – 6
  3. Neutral – 10
  4. Less Important – 6
  5. Least Important – 4

We recognize this activity is challenging. It’s likely that most of the values will mean something to you and you may want to place more cards in specific columns but the key to this exercise is forcing you to make choices in prioritizing your values.

When you’re finished take a picture of your values so you can go back and review them whenever you face a tough decision or feel like you need a little help returning to your true north.

Figuring out which values are most important to you can be tricky but once you’ve decided on your priorities, you can begin to give voice to your values, strengthening them until you get to the point where you’re living your values every day, at home, at work, and in your relationships. You’ll no longer have to worry about that circumstance, the opinions of others, or if your own doubts will lead you off course. When you’re secure in your values, you’ll be sure that every decision you make is the right one for you and your business.

We love the Values Sort assessment but if you feel that you need extra support with aligning your values to your leadership role, or defining your values for your business we’d love to hear from you.

PS – We believe in giving credit where credit is due, so you should know, this Values Sort activity was adapted from The Good Life Project. The idea for Giving Voice to Values is a framework developed by Mary C. Gentile and was introduced to us by Dr. Jane Cote and Dr. Claire Latham on Washington State University.

Al Schauer is the Founder of PointNorth Consulting. He offers coaching and mentoring to aspiring leaders committed to leading with character. His new book on values and doing the right thing will be available Spring 2019. Sign up through the link below to receive updates on how you can purchase his book.