Core Values: A Powerful Two-Way Contract

Executive Viewpoint

Core values are a big buzzword in business today. They can be very powerful—but not if they’re just a phrase on a plaque or piece of artwork in the conference room. At Steele Solutions, our core values guide what we do every day. They’ve helped us deliver more value to our customers by identifying what’s most important and incorporating it. Validation came in 2022 when we were honored with a Best Places to Work award by the Milwaukee Business Journal. We were the only manufacturer to win the award in the Extra Large (over 250 employees) category.

Core values are a way to make sure you have the right people in the right seats at your company. As an owner of Steele Solutions since 1997, I’ve learned that it’s true what they say: The worst behavior you’re willing to accept is what sets your company’s culture. I’ve heard some crazy core values, like “Don’t be a jerk.” I’ve also heard some values that are so basic that they don’t say much at all, things like “respect” or “honesty.” How about we raise the bar together?

In this, the inaugural guest column from members of the MHI Board of Directors, I’d like to offer a few thoughts about our company’s own core values journey, and what we’ve learned along the way.

Embarking on the journey

Just over a year ago, our leadership team was working with Pinnacle Business Systems on strategy. Part of that process was to identify our core values. Our leadership team had several discussions about who we are and what makes us special. Our core values couldn’t be aspirational. They needed to be the reality of how we live and operate the business every day. We created a deeper description to help our team, customers and vendors understand how we work. (Have a look at the sidebar on Steele Solutions Core Values, and you’ll see what I mean.)

Next, we had to make sure we had it right, and this was the best thing we did throughout the process. I led 18 separate meetings with about 25 people per meeting. We wanted to collect feedback and confirm that the entire team agreed we had the values correct. We rolled them out in small groups where people could have a voice. During those meetings, we explained our core values and gave examples of team members representing them. We printed out our core values and posted them on the wall in each of the four corners of the room. In each meeting, we had every team member get up and go to the value they most identified with, the one they thought they lived best. It was interesting: No single value dominated the vote. They were pretty evenly split up every time, and that was neat to see.

Then we changed it up. We asked the team members to go to the one they felt we needed to work on most, and we asked people why they were standing where they were. We had a scribe taking notes. It helped us learn what we needed to work on. It was powerful. It was incredible feedback, and it felt safe to everyone, that they could share their opinions. Then we sat back down, and had the team members give examples, peer-to-peer, of who they had witnessed living the core values. There were some great stories, and it helped crystallize what’s most important—and why.

Right from the start

Core values come into play from the beginning of the interview process through performance reviews. The first core value, for example, is Integrity in Every Decision. We see that value as a barrier of entry to stay in our company. If you don’t do your work with integrity in what you do, if you don’t do what you say you’re going to do, if you don’t treat people with respect, you’re most likely not going to be a productive member of the team.

It comes down to the way we talk to each other, the way we treat each other, the way we work with each other. It means we also expect our team members to give our vendors, customers and stakeholders their best. If you think about a project, you have, for example, sales, who turns it over to project management, who turns it over to engineering, who turns it over to supply chain, who turns it over to manufacturing, who delivers it to the customer. In each step in that process, if you’ve hit your deadlines, if you’ve given it your best work, and asked that extra question, and all of those things, that’s what integrity means.

Sometimes, a team member isn’t acting in a way that represents our core values. We’ll start with a conversation about it. It’s a softer way of telling someone, “Look, I’m not pleased with what you’re doing.” We’ve had people leave the company, but the expectations of the core values have been present all along. Our core values are not the rules people follow to work at our company. This is who we are. If you don’t fit in with this, Steele Solutions won’t be a good spot for you to be.

Maintaining momentum

Each day, when team members turn on their computers, the core values are there on the warm-up screen. They’re also posted around. We talk about them in our communications every month, and we acknowledge and reward our team members who live the core values. What we’re really looking for is one team member to nominate another. We share stories and examples.