Core values are the guiding principles that dictate behavior and action in an organization. They can be used to help people to know what is right and wrong, and they can also help a company to determine if they are on the right path toward accomplishing their business goals. In this post, we walk you through the process we used to determine our core values here at Asian Efficiency, what they mean to us as company, and how they influence the decisions we make every day.
Why are Core Values so Important?
The core values you choose help shape your identity. Core values are the rules and boundaries that define your company’s culture and personality. In order for the people on your team to work together productively and efficiently, everyone needs to be on the same page. Core values help provide the framework for determining whether you are on the right track so that you can course correct if necessary.
In 2013, we sat down as a team and started thinking about our core values. We did an exercise from Verne Harnish’s book The Rockefeller Habits, called the Mission to Mars. If you’re not familiar with the book (or the newer version, Scaling Up), this exercise attempts to answer a critical question about your team or organization:
If you could send 5 people who embodied everything that was best about your company to an alien world, who would they be and what would they embody?
We went through this exercise as a team, and what follows are the core values that we’ve identified for Asian Efficiency. They have evolved a bit over the years, but below are the five core values we feel best encapsulate what Asian Efficiency is and what we stand for. These are the things that we feel as a team best allow us to accomplish our mission of making the world a more productive and efficient place by delivering on our brand promise: actionable content that produces faster results. We weigh every decision against these core values to make sure that it is in alignment with who we are as a company.
#1: Glow Green
Glowing Green means becoming the best version of ourselves. It means becoming the very best that we can and excelling at everything that we do. It also describes the journey that we all go through from where we are now to being the successful version of ourselves that we want to be. As we succeed in and light up each area of our lives, we “glow green” in that area.
- Striving to become the best of the best of the best in all areas of our lives
- Achieving success, both as a company and team, and as individuals
- Living a happy life – however we choose to define happiness
Glowing green may look different for each person on the team, but when we all glow green individually it makes it easier to work together as a team as well. Thanh always says, “happy people are productive people,” so as a company we do our very best to make sure that people are fulfilled, successful, and happy. In fact, every sprint meeting each team member is asked “what could we do to make you happier this sprint?” And those answers get added to a happiness issue that is included in the sprint. We literally spend working hours every sprint making sure people are happy because we want to put them in the best possible situation to glow green and be more productive.
Glowing green also includes things like:
- Taking care of our physical health
- Being self-disciplined
- Financial freedom and success
- Self-improvement and personal development
We even have a separate training board where team members track what they’re doing to develop their skills. If there are books team members want to read or courses they want to take, they are not only allowed but encouraged to expense them to the company. We know that the more we glow green, the more value we add in everything that we do – whether that’s creating course materials, writing blog posts, or working directly with our customers to help them overcome difficulties and achieve their goals.
#2: Pull Others Up
Pull Others Up is the flip-side of Glowing Green. Once we have achieved a level of success, we want to help others and pull them up to our level.
Pull others up means:
- We can’t do everything ourselves, and to get the help of others, we have to provide that help to them as well
- As we get more successful, we have the ability and resources to help people around us become more successful also
- Leave no one behind
The reason this comes after glow green is that we can only take others to a place that we’ve been first. If we aren’t taking care of our own needs or aren’t investing in ourselves, we are limited in our ability to help other people. It’s the same reason that the pre-flight announcements always tell you to secure your own oxygen mask before assisting other passengers – if you run out of air and pass out, you’re no help to anyone.
Our capacity for assisting our customers is diminished when we have less resources available to help them get to where they want to go. But once we’ve done everything we can personally to glow green, then our focus changes to the other people around us because we want to help other people make the most of their time, talent, energy and focus. This creates a positive cycle which is incredibly rewarding – pulling others up actually helps us glow green even more, and the more we glow green the more we can pull others up.
Personally, these two core values are what attracted me to Asian Efficiency. They resonate very much with my personal belief system, and they demonstrate the polarizing power of company core values. We know that our company core values won’t resonate with everyone, but for the people that they do resonate with (like myself) it makes the attachment to the company vision and purpose even stronger.
What is really interesting about this is at the motivation behind the core values doesn’t even have to be identical for team members to be in complete alignment. Even though my personal Christian religious beliefs (my spiritual “why” ) may not be shared by the entire team, the resulting motivation to glow green and pull others up is. We all may have our own reasons for wanting to make the most of time, talent, energy, and focus, but these different reasons are still completely in line with first two company core values. By identifying the company core values and intentionally making them a part of our company culture, everyone is able to come in alignment with the mission of Asian Efficiency and do work that is fulfilling to them personally. Thanh and I talked about this at length in episode 126 of The Productivity Show, which you can listen to below.
#3: We Before Me
If you’ve worked in a corporate environment for any length of time, you’ve probably heard some version of this core value being espoused by a manger or executive (“We’re all a team here, Jimmy”). You’ve probably thought that those sounded like empty words too because it’s one thing to say that everyone in on the same team but it’s another thing to actually live out that belief. We were perfectly aware of this when identifying our core values, so we wanted a different way to state it that made it explicit what was expected in terms of team attitude and behavior. What we landed on was We Before Me.
We Before Me is the idea that whatever we do here at Asian Efficiency is done as a team. We win as a team, and we lose as a team. There’s no room for individual egos or agendas, because we are all working together towards the agreed upon goal. We either all achieve it or no one does.
That doesn’t mean that individuals can’t excel, or that people aren’t recognized for their accomplishments. Rather, it means that when an individual steps up, they do it to help the team reach their goal. Problems are team problems, not individual problems.
I remember when we had just launched The Productivity Show podcast and we were still figuring out all of our systems and creating our documentation. One week, someone made a mistake and accidentally published a podcast episode before it was finished. This was kind of a big deal because as soon as you publish the episode, it is immediately available to podcatchers. In this particular instance, the audio file had errors and it was released ahead of schedule. Not good.
Podcasts aren’t like blog posts because most people will download the episode once. You don’t get a chance to fix it – once it’s downloaded, people are going to listen to that file and they’ll never know that it was released by accident and only available for about two minutes to the general public. Since I was responsible for publishing podcast episodes, naturally I was freaking out trying to figure out what happened.
I jumped on HipChat and started asking some questions, trying to figure out what went wrong. Had I made a mistake? Did someone else accidentally publish the episode when they were working on the website? The high Fact Finder in me was working overtime trying to figure it out. We even had a team call about it, but it definitely didn’t go how I expected:
“It doesn’t matter how it happened,” Thanh said. “How do we make sure that this doesn’t happen again?”
I tried to respond with what I thought might have happened, but Thanh interrupted me:
“It doesn’t matter whose fault it is. I’m sure it was an accident. But how do we make sure that no one on the team makes the same mistake again?”
I learned a valuable lesson that day: accountability is not making people confess when they mess up. Accountability is being willing to step in and fix something when it’s broken. That’s what We Before Me is all about.
#4: Blow Their Minds
Another core value that is pretty common in the corporate world is something along the lines of, “quality is job 1.” But again, we weren’t satisfied with the standard definition. We wanted something more tangible, something we could measure everything that we create against. So we landed on a question that we ask about everything we release with the AE brand: does this particular product or piece of content blow the customers mind? And if the answer is “no,” then we know we have more work to do. We’ll go back an iterate until we’re confident it will.
Our goal is to provide a “WOW!” experience anytime someone comes across Asian Efficiency. We want to go beyond what is expected from us by our customers. When people talk about us, we want them to talk about us as if we are the best thing since sliced bread. The other day, I saw a new Dojo (our online productivity community) member on Slack and they had a question about where to start with setting up their task manager. I was about to log off for the weekend, but I knew they were online and wanted to help them out. So I spent the next half hour on a Friday evening when I normally would have been disconnected having a 1-on-1 conversation with them and trying to help them figure out where they should start.
I had no idea whether that person was a lifelong customer who had just found the Dojo, or was someone totally new to Asian Efficiency. It didn’t matter if the customer had paid us $29 or $1,000. I wanted to make sure I left them with a “WOW!” experience that was consistent with our core values.
Once when we were doing quarterly planning Thanh introduced the idea of upgrading our 60-day money back guarantee to DOUBLE the initial purchase amount. From the perspective of someone who gives a lot of presentations and mentions products on the podcast, this was pretty exciting to be able to offer this to our customers. But from a business perspective, it was also kind of scary and we spent quite a bit of time debating about whether this was something we really needed to do. After all, most of our competitors offer the standard money back guarantee, so why should we feel the need to incur more cost for the company if it wasn’t necessary?
After much debate, eventually we decided to upgrade to the double your money back guarantee because of this core value. We view this as a way to make sure that we are following through on the promises we make to our customers, and if we don’t it costs us. We have skin in the game. If we really believe that what we are producing is of top quality, then a minimal number of people will actually want to take advantage of this offer. But if we fail to deliver that quality, it could cost us significantly. The guarantee forces us to put our money where our mouth is (literally).
This core value was an evolution of a previous core value which was “Data Driven Decision Making”. What we found when we sat down to take a look at our core values after awhile was that while everyone on the team liked the idea of data-driven decisions, in reality it didn’t always play out that way. That’s not to say that we don’t use data when making decisions, but what we found was that occasionally we would make decisions based off an intrinsic belief that this new thing might be better. Sometimes it didn’t work out, but sometimes it opened up new doors and opportunities that we would have never discovered had we stuck to the letter of the law with our “data driven decisions” core value.
Multiple members on the team had experienced this friction, and we decided that we needed to evolve our core value to allow more freedom for personal exploration. What we really wanted wasn’t a bunch of research or a paper trail of facts, but progress being made towards our team goals. What we really wanted was continuous improvement, and so, Kaizen as a core value was born.
The literal Japanese translation of the word kaizen is “improvement”. We believe that every day when you’re at Asian Efficiency, the business is better because of your presence. We believe in the power of small, incremental changes that leverage the compound effect and result in massive action being taken on your goals. If I asked you if you’d be happy with a 365% growth rate year over year, you’d probably say yes. But a 1% daily change is actually much better than an one-time 365% change a year later. So as a company, we believe that these small changes are actually more important than the big, sweeping changes and we wanted our core values to reflect this belief.
Whenever we see an opportunity to make a small improvement, we want to act right away instead of delaying it. That means that team members must have the flexibility to test new ideas – even if they don’t have all the data yet. We start small, test, validate it – and then scale. Whenever we want to introduce a big change, we want to start small and continue making changes until we get the desired change that we seek. It’s the classic idea of eating an elephant – you do it one bite at a time.
Keeping your core values front and center
Identifying your core values is one thing, but having them become part of your company culture is quite another. One of the things that we’ve done to make sure that our core values are always top of mind is implement a tool called Bonusly. Bonusly allows us to give points to team members for activities that exhibit one of our company core values, and it integrates directly with HipChat (which is our team communication tool of choice). So if I wanted to call out Brooks Duncan for doing a great job on a particular task or project, I could type out a slash command message in HipChat that follows the Bonusly formatting:
Each core value has a Bonusly hashtag, and must be included for the bonus to go through. Each team member has a budget of 100 Bonusly points they can distribute in a given month, and the budget resets on the first of the month. The Bonusly web service keeps track of how many points each team member has received from other team members, and the team member with the most Bonusly points gets awarded a $50 gift card during the monthly team video call. And while the $50 gift card is nice, the major benefit of the service is that it continually unites our team around our core values.
Finding your own core values
Core values are a very personal thing. You can’t just copy and paste ours and expect that because they work for us they will also work for you. Feel free to use them as a starting point, but make sure to take the time and do the “Mission to Mars” exercise.
Also, core values aren’t just for companies – they are important personally, too. My wife and I actually recorded a podcast on how we identified our own family core values. If you’re wondering where to start personally with core values, take a listen below.
What are YOUR core values? Once you’ve taken the time to figure them out for yourself, your family, or your organization, let us know in the comments!
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