Leaning Into Who You Are

Editor’s Note: This column is written by Jayne Sebright, executive director for the Center for Dairy Excellence. It was originally published in Progressive Dairy.

Have you ever considered what your core values are? Or better yet, have you thought about what the core values are for your farm or business? Someone once said that core values can serve as a lighthouse when the fog of life starts circling around you. Identifying what those core values are for yourself or for your organization can help you lean into who you are as a person or as an organization. They define who you are, how you think and act, and how you interact with the world around you. For a company, core values can speak to how your team operates and interacts with each other and within the world.

Recently our boards of directors and staff went through an exercise to define our core values. We started with a list of more than 40 different words that were used to describe values that could exist within a team. Each person participating in the exercise was asked to identify the top 20 values they thought resonated most with the organization. From there, we put everyone’s top 20 on a whiteboard and identified how many times a particular value came up on everyone’s list. We quickly narrowed the list down to 10 – 12 words we felt described who we were as an organization.

Getting to Consensus

At that point, we talked about each word and how it related to the organization. By talking through each value, we were able to get different perspectives and different interpretations out in the open. We were able to talk about how that word would define the organization with the team, with those who are using our programs, and with the broader industry. In some instances, we came up with a slightly different word that seemed to fit the organization better than the original word. For example, cooperation was originally one of those top 10 – 12 values, but we changed it to collaboration because it seemed to better fit what we do.

After we discussed all those values that received multiple votes, everyone voted on their top five. From there, it became easy to define our core values because there was a lot of agreement on what those top five to seven were for our organization. What was most surprising to me was how the values we ended up with differed from the ones I had thought of before we started the exercise. Being able to discuss our values as a group helped everyone better define, collectively, who we are and what we wanted to be.

Since my role at the Center is just one of the hats I wear, I started to wonder how this exercise would resonate in other instances. What if you would sit down as a family and identify the core values that you want to guide how you interact with each other? How could it be beneficial on a farm where multiple family members are partners, managers, and employees in the operation? Talking through core values could help you realize something that might be important to someone else that you may have taken for granted.

Living Those Values

For instance, one partner may value stability and economic security for the operation, while another partner might want to see the organization embrace new challenges and advancements. One family member might have achievement listed as a core value, while another might value work: life balance. None of these values are better or worse than the others. They just represent the different perspectives and the lens each person brings to the conversation.

Having the conversation candidly and working toward consensus as a team can help alleviate issues later on when two members within the team disagree on how a situation should be handled. They become that “lighthouse” to guide your organization back to solid ground. By looking at each situation through the lens of those values, you can determine which outcome would best represent who you are as a family, as a team, or as a business, or perhaps all of the above.

If you decide to work with your team to define your own core values, here are some simple tips I found in an article on Harvard Business Review on how to make sure they resonate and are embraced by your team.

  • Be Creative. Instead of thinking about those traditional “core value” words that are most common, like trust, integrity, and responsibility, brainstorm words that you think about when you reflect on your business. Ask those in the room what they like most about working there, or what makes them want to be part of the team, and then lean into those answers to identify words that will resonate.
  • Keep Them Brief. Talking through why you selected a particular word as your core value does help make sure everyone fully understands and embraces each one. But over time, lengthy phrases are going to become cumbersome and get lost. Try to find one or two words that describe that core value you have identified.
  • Make Them Easy to Remember. Make sure the words you select are words that are easily understood by everyone. Very complex words or words with many different definitions can often get confused in the translation, so make sure they are easy to remember. For example, one of the sample values on the sheet we used was “aesthetic,” which means an appreciation of the beauty in the world around you. Although I loved what that word represented, I thought it might be a word that would be difficult to quickly understand.
  • Make Them Visible. It is not enough to just identify your core values and write them down in a book on the shelf. Make them a part of your culture. Put them on the bottom of your letterhead. Post them in your break room. Remind people of those core values at meetings and when you come together as a team. Encourage everyone to speak up if they see something that doesn’t seem to resonate with those values. The only way to make sure you live them is to keep them in your sight.

Leaning into who you are as an organization could be as important as spending time doing what you do because building consensus on who you are will shape what you do and how you relate to the world in the long run. Taking the time to identify your core values could be a good first step. If you would want a copy of the worksheet we used to put together ours, please email me at jsebright@centerfordairyexcellence.org and I can send you a copy.