The Power of Core Values
For more than 15 years now, I have attempted to identify and articulate Fairway America’s core values – a set of shared principals and beliefs that drive our behaviors and shape our organization. I cannot remember where I was first exposed to the notion of core values, but I do recall that the idea made a great deal of sense to me. The concept that we as a company (and as individuals) should and could act consistently with certain core beliefs and use them to guide decision making and actions resonated with me so I made a commitment to identifying and expressing them. That said, it took us quite a while and many iterations to actually articulate these values in a coherent and meaningful yet concise set of words. It took even longer for us to reach the point where the words did not feel like just a bunch of words on a page hanging on the wall but instead actually had meaning to the people who worked here. Like anything, we got better with practice. We would revisit the ideas and concepts periodically and attempt to make the words to describe them more evocative and compelling. What I discovered about the process is that it is not necessarily the final outcome that matters the most, but rather the dialog, the discussion – the very process itself – that really gives meaning to the words and helps people to truly engage with the values.
We had several versions over a period of six or seven years and in 2009 we went through the process once again. At that time, we came up with what to that juncture was the most accurate combination of words we had ever used to express these Core Values, and they have lasted us until recently. Every quarter, my partners and I meet to review and discuss our goals, priorities and strategy. Each time, we start at the foundational level with a review of the company’s Core Values. Because the 2009 iteration was so solid, for years we did not feel compelled to update them and we would quickly move along to the other elements of our strategic planning sessions. However, as our team has grown over the past year or two, I increasingly felt compelled to revisit them in depth again and go through the seemingly mundane and sometimes arduous process of reviewing, discussing, and rehashing the values, principles and beliefs by which we operate, and debating and reconsidering the words, phrases, and concepts we were using to describe them. Although it would require time and effort, I felt it would be worthwhile to help deepen the bond of the current team around the deep-seated values for which the company stands and in accordance with it is acceptable and encouraged for people to behave.
So in late July of this year, we embarked once again on that process with everyone in the company included in the discussions. I led the initiative and made it a requirement for everyone to participate in at least some way. The process and exercises we went through are beyond the scope of this article, but their value cannot be overstated. It is what brings connection, buy-in and depth of understanding to whatever words end up coming out at the end. While the words and phrases used to the express them may be new, the ideas, concepts and beliefs behind those words are not. They truly define what Fairway is all about and drive the actions and behaviors of our people. These beliefs spring from those of the leader(s) of the organization and, properly utilized, they influence hiring decisions, management decisions, and ultimately what constitutes acceptable behavior and interactions with clients, vendors, investors, counterparties, and each other.
One other note about Core Values before I share ours; there really is no right or wrong set of values, there is only truly identifying your own. Early on when I first attempted to do this, I made the common mistake of merely listing a set of attributes that seemed worthy of pursuit. While this may be aspirational, it did not flow from who we really were and only served to make the words fallow. While well-intentioned, they felt disingenuous and thus our people did not buy in fully. Of course it makes sense to strive toward positive attributes, but the real goal is to uncover what you are really all about as opposed to what you think others might think are desirable characteristics. This is easier said than done and has probably been the most challenging aspect of accurately describing and honing in on our true Core Values over the years. To paraphrase Emerson, “Who you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you are saying”. Better to be real than to try to appear to be flawless.
What follows is the output of our latest Core Value sessions at Fairway America. All of our people participated in this process and thus have a deep sense of what these words mean, far more than what can be gleaned from the relatively few number of them used to describe the real (and much more robust) ideas and beliefs. I recommend using some mechanism such as an acronym to help people be able to remember them and then to use as few words as possible to describe the beliefs that are most foundational to what you truly believe and how you want the people in your organization to behave. For us, the acronym is “Believe” in Excellence, and the Core Values are expressed in short phrases that begin with each of the letters in the word BELIEVE. (Note: To attempt to help describe at least a little of the meaning of each of these phrases, I will provide some brief context on each of the values to assist with your understanding.)
This embraces the concept that it is foundational to anything one desires in life, including business, to first be worthy of that which you seek. Success, friendship, love, wealth, trust – if we want to attract something, we have a far greater chance of attracting it if we are worthy of receiving it. In order to do or to get something, you must first be something. Self-awareness requires you to accept that you cannot get something for nothing, that you must first work on yourself (your skills, abilities, contributions, communication, trustworthiness, value to others, and so forth) before you can expect rewards to accrue to you in whatever form.
Be who you are. Be real. Do not try to posture, position, or impress, or say what you think people want to hear. This does not mean we have to reveal every innermost thought, but it does mean to not worry about trying to impress others by using “puffery” or exaggeration. Tell it like it is, diplomatically, but accurately, and in so doing encourage others to be authentic in return.
Learn, Grow and Improve Continuously
Recognize that we can always improve and get better. Skills, abilities, knowledge, and communication can always get better. People who are committed to always getting better at what they do, to learning new ideas and new ways of doing things, and developing their skills achieve more, receive greater satisfaction, and earn more income. They bring more value to their clients, their co-workers, the company, their families, and themselves. Be interested in life, in learning, in the way things work, and in always doing things better.
Initiate Action, Adapt and Iterate
Act. Don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do, use your latent capabilities to make an educated decision and proceed. Then, adapt to whatever the results and consequences, be resourceful, and iterate the process. Act again, adapt again, and repeat. Avoid making the same mistakes (see Learn, Grow and Improve Continuously), but do not be afraid to take the initiative and proceed again. We have a bias towards calculated action.
Empathize – then Emphasize
In any encounter, first try to understand where the other person is coming from and then make sure they know where you are coming from – in that order. We can only truly be of service to others if we first understand their objectives, goals, fears and desires – as best we can anyway. Once we do, then and only then communicate whether or not we believe we can assist and how – honestly – one way or the other. Be respectful of others, and command respect from others (and do not tolerate or accept otherwise). This is the essence of mutually beneficial, “win-win” relationships.
Value for Value
Be militant about making sure all our interactions and relationships are two-way streets. Do not try to convince people we can do something useful for them if we do not truly believe that we can. Also, be disciplined enough not to attempt to bring value to people who cannot also bring value to us in the relationship. To do either is to short change others or ourselves. Both are too important to sacrifice.
Everything with Integrity
This speaks for itself and is a book-end foundational value to the first (Be Worthy). There are always opportunities to fudge the truth, to take advantage, to not reveal key information, to be greedy at the expense of someone else who may or may not ever know. These opportunities appear, big or small, for every person, every day, in many situations. Do the right thing, even when no one is looking, as a matter of habit and core belief, all the time, in every situation.
Taken together, these beliefs permeate deeply throughout the organization. They are ours and ours alone collectively, although many others may share one or more of them individually. Other organizations will have a different combination of values that are uniquely most important to them. Whatever yours are, they should be talked about, practiced, and shared. Tell stories about people living them and look for opportunities to call out people who demonstrate and embody them. They should also be a filter for people who cannot or will not live by them and should help to weed those people out of your organization. And you will know they are real when all or at least most of your people truly buy in because they actually believe in them fully. Then you know you have them nailed – at least until you start the process again and find even better and more concise words to describe them!
Matt Burk is founder and CEO of Fairway America, LLC, and SBREfunds.com, and Chief Investment Officer of Fairway’s two proprietary nationwide small balance real estate (SBRE) asset based pooled investment funds, Fairway America Fund VI, LLC, and Fairway America Fund VII LP. Fairway is the nation’s premier consulting, advisory, and investment firm in the SBRE private pooled investment fund space, providing a full spectrum of practical, real world products and services (including capital) needed for true success for SBRE entrepreneurs all over the U.S. Matt is a highly regarded adviser, consultant, and mentor to dozens of SBRE fund managers and author of a widely read blog followed by serious SBRE entrepreneurs and investors. For over 20 years, Matt has led Fairway’s deal underwriting as well as capital raising efforts in Fairway’s seven proprietary funds and individual trust deed investments, resulting in more than $250,000,000 in capital raised from accredited investors through more than 1,000 SBRE deals. He is currently working on multiple SBRE fund consulting engagements nationwide, authoring a book on how to raise capital for and effectively manage pooled investment funds, and dedicating his efforts to create greater awareness and drive more capital to the many high caliber and deserving SBRE entrepreneurs around the U.S.