Finding Our Core Values
Lester Thornhill, Life’s Abundance
March 19, 2018
Since 2002, year after year, my company’s sales were robust, profits were up and my executives were aligned. On the surface, everything looked great. But I recognized that I was facing a significant long-term problem: time. It was marching on, and most of my executives would be retiring within the next 10 years. I had to figure out a way for new hires to understand and embrace the core values that helped us grow and prosper.
As luck would have it, I met Dave Whorton at an employee ownership conference in Colorado.
It’s hard for me to describe the sense of relief and excitement I felt when hearing Dave talk about the meaning of an Evergreen company. I thought, Wow, that’s us! And for the first time, I didn’t feel weird. I felt at home with a like-minded executive. When he went into the details of the seven P’s, it all made perfect sense to me. I was thrilled that he asked me to join the Tugboat Institute and, shortly after, I applied for Evergreen Certified status for Life’s Abundance.
I had been at Life’s Abundance, which sells premium wellness products, for more than two decades. Over the last several years, I had been thinking we needed a way to explain our beliefs both internally and externally — but that proved to be a lot easier said than done. We certainly had values essential to our core since the very beginning. Dennis and Carol Berardi co-founded the Florida-based company in 1998 to enhance the lives of people’s families, including their four-legged members. They wanted to develop and sell products with healthy ingredients in a transparent, private and sustainable manner.
I joined the team just a year after its founding, in 1999. I loved the idea of creating and selling small batches of healthy pet food and human supplements to health-conscious consumers. Early on, I suggested we stay online so that we could maintain control of the product, have a more personal relationship with each buyer and keep our team members well-informed.
In 2011, three years after I became CEO, I started fiddling with this idea that our core values needed to be spelled out in order to be effectively shared. Until this time, it seemed like we didn’t really need such a thing. All the founding members of the company were still part of the team. We were a tight-knit group with a similar value system. But I just couldn’t figure out how to share this feeling with newcomers.
Every once in a while, we gathered to try to come up with ways to describe how we work together with so very few disagreements. Nothing ever felt or sounded right. We even brought in outside consultants, but what they suggested never captured it. By last year, panic over this set in. Our core team members were starting to retire. I realized that I was going to lose 120 years of combined experience and culture over the next few years if we didn’t have a core set of values to maintain. I started feeling like I was on the brink of a serious culture problem.
Thankfully I met Dave, and soon thereafter I had the opportunity to attend the Tugboat Institute Summit. When Robert Glazer, founder and managing director of Acceleration Partners, spoke about the importance of core values, I was motivated. He said that you don’t need a company mission statement to communicate your vision and core values. You simply need three words that represent them. It was a watershed moment for me, and immediately I knew that Evergreen was the first core value. Now I needed two more. To produce consistently great work, it’s important to focus on the recipients of our work (both inside and outside the company) rather than ourselves, so I chose empathy as the second core value. And because it takes energy to avoid being mediocre and to innovate and lead, that became our third core value.
Rolling these values out to my team has been a lot of fun. We have established a blog where we talk about each of the core values and how we can put them into action. We update this blog several times a day — and I can keep track of how often people are reading the articles and watching the videos. They can also post content. We have a growing wall of sticky notes where people can throw up ideas relating to core value action. And every week, I have a presentation where I discuss one core value and elicit feedback and stories pertaining to that value.
So far, the results have been amazing. People are sharing a lot more and their language is starting to change. For instance, teammates are starting to talk about the Energy it takes to get a job done or how they had Empathy when speaking to a customer earlier that day.
These core values have been rolled into our hiring processes and have affected what kinds of questions we ask people. They’ll be very helpful in determining the types of characteristics we want in people who exemplify our core values.
I am incredibly inspired and excited by the results, and I look forward to our next step: communicating our core values to the outside world.
Lester Thornhill is the CEO of Life’s Abundance.