Throw Away Your To-Do List: Using Core Values to Navigate the Unexpected

Melissa’s TEDx talk was on Saturday. It was Thursday. We were discussing back and forth over whether the word “love” was the appropriate word for her closing line. We were on the verge of a nervous giggle fit, as the English language got less and less concrete in our minds. I was supposed to be writing 40 thank you cards for clients and I hadn’t gotten through most of them. I looked at my list of to-dos for the week and laughed at how little I’d accomplished.

And then we nailed it. The whole talk came together. When Melisa walked in the next morning, she handed me a thank you card for helping her find the right words. When I hugged her and said “Aw I love you,” neither of us questioned whether love was the appropriate word.

At Swift Kick, we have some clear core values. They haven’t changed in the six years I’ve been here. One of those values is Raise the Tide, which is defined as

“We’re in this together so contribute to the greater good of our whole community. “

Yes, my to-do list was being neglected. But Melissa needed my help and her TEDx talk was important and very, very soon. In the end, I didn’t feel bad about my work because Swift Kick’s company culture tells me to help my teammates.

In The Happiness Advantage, author Shawn Achor mentions a Gallup study that surveyed ten million employees around the world if they agree with the following statement: “My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.” People who agreed with that statement tended to have higher productivity, added more profit, and were more likely to stay with the company longer.

Core values >> Team Culture >> How We Act

“Gallup analytics show that just 27% of employees strongly agree they believe in their company’s values, and 23% of employees strongly agree they can apply their organization’s values to their work every day.”


Having core values that are actually enforced and encouraged creates the culture of your team. Unfortunately, the above statistic shows that very few people feel the importance of culture and core values. Why is culture important? Because it guides each person in unexpected circumstances. I thought my to-do list was solid. But you can plan plan plan all you want, and things will still go awry. When they do, the core values inform us how to act on the fly. I could have said to Mel, “Not my job,” but Swift Kick’s culture has made us friends, and told us to help each other.

When talking about the importance of culture, Tony Hsieh, talks repeatedly in his book Delivering Happiness about how managing your people becomes easy if the culture is right.

“We don’t have scripts because we trust our employees to use their best judgment when dealing with each and every customer.”

Tony Hsieh, on his customer service team

Creating Core Values that Work

Make them “actionable”

Having posters that say “Integrity” and “Teamwork” will do literally nothing besides bring on mockery. Our core values are sentences that are actions: Raise the Tide, Play to Win, etc. This means that we can actually live the values, instead of reflecting on an abstract concept.

Hire with values in mind

Craft your hiring and interview process to reflect your core values. Ask questions for each of the values. “Describe a time when you helped a teammate even though it wasn’t part of your job directly…” They don’t need to know you’re weeding out potential team members based on core values. That knowledge comes later.

Incorporate the values into your systems

Once someone is on your team, teach them the core values. Repeat them at retreats and on-boarding sessions. Explain them with examples. Center your one-on-one weekly meetings around them. Every Friday at Swift Kick, we each sit down with Tom and he asks us how we lived each of the core values that week. We know it’s coming, so it would be pretty hard to forget to work within the company culture every week. When we do team shout-outs, we often shout out our teammates for exemplifying one of the values specifically.

Yes, the TEDx talk was Melissa’s project. But by the end of it, all of us on the team felt like it was ours too. She rocked it, by the way. We will share it when the link is live.

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