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Define Principles and Values

In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.

– Thomas Jefferson

Many organizations jump to trying to write down their vision or mission statement before taking the time to really think about and define their core principles. Principles are the foundation upon which the company is built and (hopefully) operates. They are so important that you should be willing to sacrifice significant business, or even the company itself, to preserve the principle.

In private companies and smaller organizations, the principles often come from the values of the owners or founders. For example, a company I used to work for was owned by a couple of devout Catholics. Because of this, the entire organization knew there were some products that we would not make for any price because they conflicted with Catholic beliefs. The employees fully supported that principle, even though it cost the company business.

I’m very proud that the company I co-founded, Gemba Academy, values ethics, integrity, and respect for people above all else. We know our success is built on the efforts and creativity of our people. We respect our people by having an unlimited vacation policy, being transparent with our business operations, and, for a very small company, having a strong benefits package that includes health care, 401(k), and profit sharing. This respect extends to our customers too. We’ve had situations where customers wanted to purchase a product, but we knew it wasn’t the right fit for them. We openly told them, demonstrating respect for the customers and our values.

Think about your personal principles and values. What do you truly care about? Your principles should be so important that you’d be willing to give up business—such as not taking a job, even if your livelihood depended on it—to not cross them. Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic and currently a professor at Harvard, calls this the True North, or inner compass. Principles are important because they create the perspective, boundaries, and culture for the organization. Without them, there is a good chance that the culture will evolve on its own, based on the values of the strongerwilled employees.

What are the core principles and values of your organization and yourself?