Key to Developing Guiding Principles


Author: Dr. Nancy Zentis, CEO

Developing guiding principles is one of the more important activities an organization will invest in to create a high-performance organization.

Values and Principles are used to drive decision-making in organizations and are critical in shaping the culture.  Culture drives business performance.  If you’ve ever wondered why some organizations are better than others, it’s because their culture drives their strategy.  What creates a culture? How people behave based on demonstrated values!  Having the best technology in the world doesn’t necessarily drive high performance.

Guiding Principles are important for long-term sustainability!

Guiding principles ensure that the long-term culture survives and helps the organization to drive performance, customer, stakeholder, and employee satisfaction.  The organization survives because its vision and values are clear and support how the business sustains itself. 

How to Define Organization Values

Step One: Articulate the Values

Articulating the values that you want to drive the organization is an important part of the visioning process for any company.

Most organizations identify 6-8 core values that they want their business to operate under, that will drive the outcomes achieved by the business.  A leadership team that uses their values to guide every decision they make unerringly moves their organization to high performance. In order to create your guiding principles, you must have already identified your top 6-8 core values.

Step Two: Identify the Irrational Rules, Policies, & Procedures

Work with your front-line team members to identify the policies, rules, and procedures in your workplace, which either:

  • have a negative impact on morale or
  • are unnecessary obstacles, in the way of getting your product or service delivered to your customer cheaper, quicker, and of the highest quality

Toss out those that are irrational and don’t support the business to achieve its goals.  (You might want to use a process map to conduct this activity.)

Step Three: Create Your Value Proposition

First, create your value proposition – What values drive your organization brand?  Why do customers do business with you?  What attracts employees to work for your organization?  Why do they stay?  A great way to determine your value proposition is to collect stories from employees and customers detailing what they appreciate about the organization, its leaders, their job, and the culture.

Step Four: Identify Your Guiding Principles

Based on your value proposition, identify your guiding principles.  Guiding principles support your value proposition.

As you develop your principles, keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Guiding principles spring from your values
  • Involve team members in identifying the guiding principles
  • The principles need to be consistent with the Vision
  • Guiding principles describe what experience the organization wants to deliver to its customers and employees
  • Ensure the principle doesn’t outline the exact “how to do”, but does emphasize what is important to the business

For each value, create a statement that completes the statement.

“People will be …(insert value)… when they…”.

Here are a couple of examples:

Value = Flexibility

People will be flexible when they:

  • Work within a structure that encourages and supports multi-skilling
  • Are guided by principles rather than driven by rules
  • Know and understand customer needs
  • Are involved in decision-making that impacts them
  • Are involved in planning and organizing change
  • Understand and appreciate the reason for the change

Value = Technical Competency

People are technically competent when they:

  • Use their training with accuracy, care, and attention to detail
  • Learn and implement skills
  • Participate in multi-skilling
  • Are empowered to make decisions in technical areas
  • Are highly trained and kept informed on technical developments

Step Five: Apply the Principles

Principle-Centered, High-Performance Leaders consistently use these three questions in their decision-making process:

  1. “Is this decision aligned with our principles and values?”
  2. “How will this decision affect our business over the next 3, 5, 10 years?”
  3. “What is the possible impact it could have on how our people behave and feel?”

Use the questions above, as you make similar type decisions in your business, to give yourself a much better chance of making design choices, that will lead to the long-term health and agility of your business.

How to Facilitate the Meeting to Identify your Guiding Principles:

Below are three steps to help identify your core values.

  1. Imagine you are starting fresh

Brainstorm all the behaviors, qualities, characteristics, and feelings you would want your new team members to have so that your team can deliver the results the business needs.  Your group will probably come up with a list of 50+ words.

Here are a few examples: Leadership, Teamwork, Technical Competency, Ability to Learn, Initiative, Integrity, Open Communication, Fun.

  1. Pare the list down to 6-8 values

Your group should then pare this list down, to the core 6-8 values that the business will use, to guide its decision-making.

Values are universal.  We all know what makes for a good life – be it personally or organizationally.  So, when developing team values, don’t be surprised that your list is very similar to hundreds of other companies.  There will be one or two in your list that makes your team uniquely you!

(Hint, don’t just go for the values that get the most votes. Sometimes a value that someone has put up, but others didn’t think of at the time, maybe just perfect for your team.)

  1. Describe the values

Now here is where the rubber meets the road.  This step gives you the edge of having a bunch of listed values that may or may not get used and values that inspire improved performance.

For each value, in small groups, answer these three questions:

  • Describe what … (insert the value) … means to you
  • Describe the behaviors you believe will demonstrate this value
  • Describe the results that will follow, by people having/using this value

Once the small groups have created their answers, then come together as a larger group and decide upon the final list.  This may take a skilled facilitator to bring together for you, but it is definitely worth the time.

Example:  Using the value of Willing and Able to Learn

Describe what it means to you

  • Being open minded
  • People feeling inspired because they are continuously improving
  • We hire and value people who have the capacity to learn and are able to apply knowledge – not just on their current knowledge
  • Flexibility in thinking and behaving
  • People do not always need to have the exact skill set because they can learn
  • Learning is the way of life, it happens every single day, it is not a special event
  • Learning is a continuous journey that has no end, training has a finite goal, “as a result of the training you will be able to do something that you couldn’t previously do”
  • We are all continuously evolving

What behaviors would you expect to see that demonstrate this value?

  • People willingly stepping outside of their comfort zone
  • Questioning
  • Pursuing learning opportunities
  • Showing initiative
  • People understanding the tangible benefit of going to off-the-job learning opportunities
  • People who are enthusiastic to learn new skills
  • Taking on new tasks, expanding what they can do

What results will follow by people having/using this value?

  • Multi-skilling
  • Flexible workforce
  • Skilled and passionate people
  • People performing their roles, accepting change, and enjoying the variation in work
  • Reduced downtime, reduced cost
  • Better quality of profit
  • Greater customer and team member satisfaction

It is important that ALL team members have the chance to take part in describing the behavior (Step 3 of this exercise). If you don’t include everyone, you won’t get buy-in from everyone.

When team members are given the time to discuss and ponder the meaning of a value and how it will be applied in their day to day, and the results that can be expected, they will be more committed to seeing to it that the value is used.

Author: Nancy Zentis, Ph.D.  is the CEO and Founder of the Institute of Organization Development (IOD).  As a consultant in the field of OD for many years, she has developed Talent Management and Leadership Development Strategies for many leading organizations.

Interested in learning more?  The Institute of Organization Development (IOD) offers an online Talent Management Certification Program (TMCP) for those interested in advancing their careers in the field of Talent Management. Participants learn how to help their organizations implement an aligned talent management strategy and receive the guidelines, tools, and resources needed to be successful. TMCP is offered online over 8 months, 3 hours per month to maximize your development as a Talent Management Strategist. Our expert faculty provides interactive discussions, activities, and examples that enrich your learning experience.

For more information about our certification programs and professional development workshops, visit our website or email us at


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