I’m president of my local Toastmasters club. Every meeting that I’ve attended has started with the president reviewing the Toastmasters’ mission. Under my leadership, we’ve started instead with a brief question or example of one of the club values. There are four values from our international organization parent:

  • Respect
  • Integrity
  • Service
  • Excellence

I introduced the values at a meeting by asking who knew them? Only one veteran member knew what the values were. When I gave the members the opportunity to speak on the role of values, someone said, “Values are what an organization tells you to try and make you fit into the system they’ve created.” In other words, a top-down attempt at manipulation.

To these four values that Toastmasters International provided, I’ve added:

  • Acceptance
  • Fun

I believe the four original values accurately reflect our culture today. However, they’re missing the additional two values which I’ve observed in our club’s behavior. In other words, bottom-up values derived from members.

Five years ago, I set the values of my business:

  • Freedom
  • Integrity
  • Results
  • Growth

These are a reflection of my personal values. I.e. Top-down.

The past two years, in weekly meetings spanning May through July each year, our team has discussed and refined these values into ten more specific expressions. I.e. bottom-up. Each week, I challenged them with actual scenarios from our work and asked them to derive principles from those scenarios, based on how they thought we should respond. Then we would discuss the long list of principles we all came up with and the pros and cons of each.

Below is what we eventually ended up with:


  • Move things forward.
  • What can I do?


  • Do what you say you’re going to do.
  • Everyone deserves a basic level of respect.
  • Have the other person’s best interest at heart.


  • Seek first to understand, then be understood. (Covey)
  • Begin with the end in mind. (Covey)
  • Focus on getting to a solution.


  • Invest in what will serve tomorrow.
  • Reflect to evolve.

The first time we did this last year, team members were a little bemused by the use of time during the weekly meetings. “We’re talking about values… again?”

But later in the year, when I checked in with team members about how things were going, more than one of them told me, “I’m glad we spent all that time talking about values. It made me feel differently about our team and what we do.”

More recently, my part-time PM quit her full-time job at another agency. She told me, “I didn’t feel good working there. They were constantly looking for ways to rack up their billings. They don’t look out for their clients like we do. I kept seeing the difference between how we do things and how they do things.”

After working with values as a leadership tool for the last five years, I’ve come to a couple of working theories:

1) Values are important because they support identity. What we believe about who we are guides our behavior. This functions the same for an individual identity or a group identity.

2) Abstract ideals, like, “integrity” are flexible, but not sticky. We don’t access them as readily as a value like, “Do what you say you’re going to do.” It’s easy for “integrity” to seem like a top-down corporate slogan that doesn’t really mean anything. It’s a lot harder to feel the same about its expression as a working principle.

Regarding the impact of values, it’s hard to make a quantitative evaluation. However, I have more trust in our team than ever. I’m regularly surprised by the good things that they do. There are always situations where there’s ambiguity in the operations of a business and its easy for someone to take the easiest approach or defer responsibility. Our team, “Moves things forward.”

For Toastmasters, I’ve only been president for around six weeks. In six weeks though, our club has kicked into gear. The same member who told everyone that values were a top-down attempt at manipulation has become deeply involved in supporting the growth of the club. We’ve revamped our member onboarding, speech management, and our mid-way through a large promotion for a special September workshop. That’s not all because of values, but there are apparent signs of the social fabric of the club growing stronger in support of that work.

For your business, if you believe that you have the right people for the roles that they serve, but they don’t always make the “right” choice, it might be time to get clear on how to make the right choice. Values are often a reflection of the founder (top-down), but their needs to be acceptance and buy-in from everyone (bottom-up.) Discussing and negotiating values helps to build ownership for what you’ll end up with.

And it’s worth the work. Even if it takes twenty meetings over two years.