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  • Marie Rosecrans, Readwrite

Want to set your small business up for success? Do this.

Let’s talk about values. Not family values or stock values, but company values: the bedrock of an organization. A company’s core values define it in a way nothing else can. They support the vision and shape the culture. They are the principles and beliefs that define the work. They are what drive the company.

Some leaders consider values a soft sell or nice-to-have. Small businesses, in particular, are often hyper-focused on the product in a rush to get to market, forgetting to acknowledge the underlying foundation that helps a company run smoothly. But research shows that companies that lead with their values are better positioned to achieve strong customer loyalty, employee engagement, and team productivity. So if you want to set your business up for growth and long-term success, you’ve got to take time to focus on values.

First things first: Define your values.

Values act as a North Star for the company; they pinpoint what’s important, which then helps determine where to focus individual time and effort. Here at Salesforce, our #1 value is trust, a value which has become the backbone of our company (Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff even spoke at Davos this year about the importance of trust in an organization). That emphasis reverberates through everything we do and defines who we are as a company. Aside from trust, our Salesforce culture is guided by other core values of customer success, innovation, and equality. Every day, we’re personally responsible for living these values and holding each other accountable for them. These are the values that inspire us and help us to grow.

So think about the values that matter to your small business; what’s important to consider as you grow? Perhaps consider Benioff’s advice: “What is the most important thing to you in your company? Really look at your value system. What’s #1? If everything is important, nothing is important. You have to choose what is really important to you.” Next, distribute your values. With competition what it is today — intense — companies often lose sight of what drives them. To make sure you’re accountable for your values, you’ve got to make them visible. For years companies have thrown them right on the conference room wall. Other small businesses — like SalesLoft, QGenda, and Thompson Pump — opt to define their values on their websites for easy reference. Some companies go the traditional route with simple values (like trust, respect, and equality), which others take a modern approach with idea statements (like team over self, bias toward action, or focus on impact). A good litmus test for whether a company lives its values is to ask the employees to name them. Would your employees be able to list the company values if asked? Could they tell you how they shine through in their day-to-day roles? If not, it’s time to shout them a little louder. Make those values stick. It’s one thing to write down your values — and quite another to live up to them every day. So once you’ve gone through the motions of defining and distributing your company’s values, you’ve actually got to make them stick. That means “living” your values. Let your values guide the company; they can dictate your decisions, your product direction, and even whom you hire. Values stretch us to be our very best, which is why you’ve got to embed them in how you work. We’ve seen several recent examples where companies have received negative publicity because values were either compromised or not there to begin with. How can core values help you avoid these situations? Here at Salesforce we know that if we frame our work in the context of our values and use those values to drive our decision making, we’ll always make the right decision. And when we do make a wrong decision, we usually find that it’s because we weren’t aligned with our core values. North Star, indeed.

Evolve your values over time.

Just because you’ve thrown those values on your website doesn’t mean they have to stay there forever. Organizations, products, and people all change. If your current values aren’t tied to the vision, everything suffers — innovation slows, employees become disenchanted, and customers attrit. Something needs to change.

So take time every year to think about the status of your company. What’s driving it? What could it be doing better? Where do you want it to go? If you had to choose your core values from scratch right now, would they be the same as the originals? As your small business grows, this is a great exercise to make sure you stay aligned and moving forward.

Ready, get set, grow.

Competition today is fierce and small businesses must try to differentiate themselves in whatever ways they can. When products are the same or similar, a consumer’s decision is based on what kind of company he or she wants to support. So take some time to think about the values that are important to you. Write them down and shout them out. Make sure they radiate throughout the company. Breathe them in deeply and they will help you grow.

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