Guiding Principles: Laying the Tracks for Your Business


Ever since Built to Last was published in 1994, companies have been “core value” happy. Walk into almost any corporate office and you’re bound to see words like INTEGRITY, TEAMWORK, and this a good one, QUALITY, displayed on lackluster decals. Actually, there’s a better chance that you’ll gloss right over them – but they are there. Attempting to implement core values in this way is not only ineffective, but potentially harmful to your business. Thankfully, there is a more effective alternative- guiding principles.

Core Values VS. Guiding Principles

If you Google either of these phrases, you’ll likely find a lot of overlapping definitions. Before we continue, let’s define them for ourselves to avoid any confusion. 

Core Values- the fundamental beliefs of an organization. These are generally crafted to be used internally through strategy, marketing, and sales, but often end up in external messaging as well. 

  • Usually a single word
  • Describe a company trait or feature
  • Limited actual internal value
  • Limited value in building brand culture
  • Often viewed by team as insincere, generic office speak
  • Such as: honest, service, community, excellence

Guiding Principles- actionable principles that govern the culture of your brand from the inside out. These are used to form your brand culture and company language. 

  • Used to create action
  • Describe a specific expectation
  • Huge internal value
  • Used highly in coaching teammates
  • Directly related to vision and mission statements
  • Such as: guide with honesty, build community, 

The biggest difference between the two is the emphasis on action. Core values are often hollow adjectives, and provide staff with little practical guidance. On the other hand, guiding principles are actually meant to be used on a daily basis. Ultimately, they outline the way that your team goes about achieving their work, and help guide decision making. 


Vision & Mission

To understand the role that guiding principles can play in your business, let’s take a little step back. Try to recall your company’s point of conception. Not the day that you formed your LLC, or the day you moved into your first office space, but the moment when the idea for your business first crossed your mind. It was at this point that you discovered your WHY- the initial inspiration that led to the creation of your business. This is also commonly referred to as your vision. 

Your vision serves as the inspiration for you and your team, as well as your audience. Whether you have formally defined it or not, your vision already exists at the core of your company. It is your unwavering desire to see something created, and should never change or pivot. 

The way in which you set out to achieve your vision is referred to as your mission. This is defined by what you do and how you do it. Your mission acts as your guide to seeing your vision realized, but unlike vision, can pivot when needed. 


Why Guiding Principles Are Important

Your guiding principles stem directly from your vision and mission, so the goal is not so much to create them as it is to discover them. As we have mentioned, your vision, or WHY, already exists at the core of your company, and has since day one. Guiding principles simply translate your WHY into actionable guidelines that your staff can look to for direction. These help to ensure that everyone who joins your team understands the business’s core beliefs, and help steer them in the right direction when confronted with issues. 

“Guiding principles simply translate your WHY into actionable guidelines that your staff can look to for direction.”

Unfortunately, as companies grow, many of them allow their WHY to fall by the wayside. This is the result of new staff members not being properly educated on the business’s roots and purpose. As the WHY fades into the background, company culture becomes nonexistent. This, in turn, creates a bland and negative work environment for your staff, which will eventually become obvious to your customers. 

Many businesses believe they can alleviate this decline by slapping some core values up on a wall by the water cooler. As you can probably imagine, it’s not that easy. In order to truly instill your WHY in your brand and employees, you must do more than that. This is where guiding principles come in.

Guiding Map


Forming Your Guiding Principles

In order for your guiding principles to, well, guide, they need to follow some guidelines of their own. 

They must be authentic. If you are attempting to promote an idea that you don’t actually believe and practice yourself, your staff will see right through it. Remember, the goal is to communicate your original WHY. 

They must be realistic. Setting unrealistic goals or standards for employees makes management seem out of touch. 

Make them unique. Avoid cookie-cutter principles that could just as easily describe another company.

Use only your most core fundamentals. You are going to ingrain them in your company culture, so if you’re unsure about a principle’s importance, leave it out. 

Keep in mind that these are the principles you follow now, not goals for the future. They are meant to be utilized by your staff on a day-to-day basis.


Here are some of our guiding principles at HMG Creative:

Stay Creative- our work is rooted in new ideas and new processes, but be ready to make decisions using your experience and knowledge.

Find Purpose- be curious, ask questions, and listen for the answer. A successful result starts with purpose. 

Be Good Stewards- of the assets of our client, community and company.

If these were core values, they could have easily been CREATIVE, PURPOSEFUL and CONSCIENTIOUS. While those are all nice sounding words, they don’t provide much context as to how they actually fit into the company culture, or give guidance for handling various situations. By making them actionable, these principles provide us with real insight into how to make decisions every day. 

Let Your Principles Guide

Today, people want a consistent brand experience. Everything from your Instagram page, to your storefront, to your follow up email should work together to create a cohesive experience for your customer. Most likely, many different team members are handling these various aspects of your business, so it is up to your guiding principles to keep them all on the same page. 

As your company grows, a strong set of guiding principles becomes more and more necessary to instill culture, and your vision, in your staff. This way, they all tell the same story, and your company can continue to grow in the right direction. 


If you’re looking for even more help with understanding of forming your guiding principles, check out this presentation by HMG’s Brand Strategist, John Paulsen!