Core Values: What they are, why they matter, and how to define yours

Sara Sutler-Cohen, Ph.D.
8 min readMar 6, 2019

In 2010, I was Dean of Social Sciences at Bellevue College, just outside of Seattle. That year, I was fortunate to be a part of the Washington Executive Leadership Academy (WELA), a year-long event that included workshops and retreats. WELA grooms its college administrative darlings for vice presidential and presidential positions in higher education, and as such, we trained in all sorts of interesting areas of leadership from the mundane (budgeting) to the invigorating (engaging students toward success and retention). I came out of it realizing I didn’t want to be a college president or in a position of leadership in higher education administration but took with me some incredible experiences (and made fantastic connections with people I continue to engage professionally.

We were, each of us, assigned, two mentors. For me, one was the VP of HR at a community college in southern Washington, and the other was the president of a college in the Seattle area. Both were excellent mentors, and I continue to use what I learned from each of them.

There was, however, one stand-out moment in the form of a simple question:

“Sara, when you go to work every day, what do you walk in with? What are your core values?”

“What?”

“What leads you?”

“Huh?”

*chuckles*

“Okay,” he continued, “think about it and get back to me.”

It took me months to figure it out, probably because deep down inside, I didn’t want to be in educational leadership. While my core values — since I’ve figured out what the heck he was on about — have now been properly developed and they roll off my tongue with ease, I really had no idea what he was getting at.

Core Values: What they are and what they are not. Also: Why?

You can Google the definition and get the basic idea of core values but here’s the gist:

Core values are the root beliefs that a person or organization operates from. They are the principle perspectives that guide a person or organization’s behavior with others.

Mission statements of organizations are, theoretically, developed from core values and should act as business gut-checks when new products are launched, or courses are offered, things like that.

This was, roughly speaking, what I found when I was asked what my core values were, but I was still confused. It’s pretty vague when you consider this definition and perhaps I didn’t know myself as well as I thought I did. That was my terrifying takeaway.

How can we develop personal core values that make a difference in what we do professionally? Can they help us be better team members, leaders, and co-workers? The quick answer is a resounding yes!

That’s the good news.

The challenge is crafting a set of professional core values that speak to who you are, personally. That’s a tricky connection for a lot of people because we don’t always want to assign our personal lives to our professional lives. But they are connected. Who we show up as professionally is hard to separate from who we are personally.

Core values are not about how fair you are at work, who you get along with at work, or whether you show up to your job on time. These aren’t personality traits, either, which is often how we think about them.

More importantly, though, is understanding why you want them in the first place. Once you know why you want them, it’s easier to start crafting. Core values are useful for understanding yourself, though they are not an exercise in navel-gazing. When your core values are developed well and can clearly represent you, people will be drawn to you, not just because you have some nifty phraseology in your pocket but because you’ll look like someone who’s grounded in self-understanding.

Load up with meaning

When you develop your core values, pack them with meaning. Know why you have them and what they can mean to others. How do they represent you? I’ll share with you my core values; I have three: Cultivating Meaningful Relationships, Being of Service to Others, and Redefining Professional Development. Each one of these core values is packed with meaning.

In cultivating meaningful relationships, I have to show up authentically so that the people with whom I develop relationships (both personal and professional) know who I am, right out of the gate. If I’m not honest about who I am and how I interact, then I will never have trust with people. This was a hard lesson because I don’t trust easily; I found that to overcome that hurdle, I had to show up real and true. From there, people are who people are. We can’t control how people see us, but we can control how we present ourselves.

While I have, in some ways, distanced myself from academia, I realized that there was something to it that I loved, and that was about helping students succeed, assisting with onboarding of new faculty, and being an advisor and mentor. In sharing my experiences with others and helping people avoid the many pitfalls I experienced in my personal and professional life, I am being of service to others, and more importantly, I’m doing so because I genuinely want to help. There is nothing quite like the joy of seeing someone succeed, get over a hurdle, or gain self-confidence because of working with me. And it’s not just about getting an ego boost or getting paid. Both of those things are good and well-deserved because it is still work for me, even though I love it. This joy comes from seeing people get a sense of freedom from their power, the power that was always there.

My final core value is about redefining professional development, and this is directly connected to what I do as a career development strategist. When I first got into this business I noticed that a lot of the underlying issues people have with getting unstuck wasn’t simply about the writing (marketing copy, letters of application for grad school, résumé writing, etc.) but that it was connected to deeply personal blocks preventing them from even seeing what they’d written. Too many coaches either promise some kind of system to solve someone’s emotional blocks or they ignore them altogether and promise they’ll get over whatever hurdle is there without the personal work. Or, the third option is that people will do the writing for you. I redefine what professional development means because I recognize it as a deeply personal — and radical — act that people can do for themselves with a guide, not a guru or a ghostwriter.

By loading up your core values with meaning, you get a sense of why you have them and who benefits from your perspectives.

Core Values Crafting 101

There are probably as many ways to create core values as there are core values but here are some steps to start you off or if you’ve already got core values, use this guide to deepen your development.

Step One: Wordsmithing

Pick some words that describe how you want people to see you, professionally. Here are some ideas:

Authentic | Grounded | Sharp | Honest | Influential | Forthright | Kind | Generous | Capable

Another trick is to ask your coworkers and supervisors to give you one or two words that best describe how they feel working with you. This is different than asking for words to simply describe you, which is usually what people are asked. Finding out what it’s like to work with you will help you generate ideas about how you’re seen as a colleague. Generating an emotional tie to core values can offer deeper meaning to their development.

Step Two: Making Meaning

Check out my examples above and figure out how I’ve attached meaning to core values. You’re creating an elevator pitch of sorts, right? If you have a core value of being “down to earth,” awesome! But understand what it means so well that you can say it in a way that’s clear to others because people will unpack the meaning for you otherwise. Say what you mean and mean what you say and always attach a clear explanation to each core value.

Step Three: It’s not about you

Your core values sum up who you are as a member of a community (large or small) and how you engage with other people. Present the impact of your core values on other people. Take your core value, attach meaning to it, and within its definition explain how people benefit from it. This is a way to explain your core value as a perspective into who you are.

Let me use an example from a client; Julie works with onboarding new faculty at her institution:

Core Value: Be Influential

Deeper Meaning: I influence others by demonstrating my talent as a public speaker

Outward and Onward: People benefit from my guidance by overcoming their fears of public speaking.

Starting to make sense? Unpacking this process step-by-step helps us to not only understand what core values are but how to develop them and in turn, understand ourselves a little bit better.

Bonus Tips

Take the process seriously.

Practice crafting core values by applying them to other areas in your life. What are your core values as a parent, best friend, or partner? What are your core values as a customer or client? What are your core values as a student?

Think about people you admire: people you know, people you don’t know, or characters in a story. (My company is named for Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance!) What is it about the content of their character that you admire? Are they always on time? That’s a value you might associate with being conscious of other people. Are they good listeners? That value might be one of empathy.

Reflect on some challenging decisions you’ve had to make in your lifetime. Big decisions, hard decisions, decisions that impacted other people directly (or indirectly). How did you make the decision? What was the process? Were you careful and deliberate? Or did you close your eyes and point? What was the outcome? What was the consequence? Dig deep into these experiences and think about what you learned and whether you changed or grew from making hard choices. Embedded in these experiences are your core values.

When you’ve developed them, share them! This is the best way to test the waters. Get feedback and remember that as with anything having to do with professional development, treat your core values as living documents. Return to them often and as you change, so too will your values systems.

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Sara Sutler-Cohen, Ph.D.

Career Strategist | Effective Career Launcher | Mentor | Strategic Sociologist | Recovering Academic www.scoutcareercoaching.com