Core values

Oct 02, 2017

Company culture is about much more than the fun you have, the events you sponsor, time off, and cushy health benefits.

Our personal core values are developed from an early age. For me, they were first defined by my parents and surrounding family. The Boy Scouts provided me with the 12 points of the Scout Law which gave tangible words to my values. Texas A&M University further defined my values through its institutional core values of respect, excellence, leadership, loyalty, integrity, and selfless service.

If you ask an individual what they believe in, most can provide you an answer. So why is it that as companies we struggle so much to define our cultures which are essentially our core values? And wouldn’t the definition of our core values allow us to better operate our firms as we would have a common filter by which to evaluate our decisions?

So many times, we tend to reflect on the physical trappings of culture, not the culture itself. Likewise, it is often challenging to differentiate a firm on its technical skills or work product alone as everyone can prepare statements of qualification that infer his or her firm is the best. But if you can clearly define and live your core values which are the drivers of your firm’s culture, you can differentiate yourself to your clients, staff and prospective staff.

Once defined, the struggle then becomes to maintain and nurture those values as they are the essence of your firm. To succeed at that, it is imperative that you start with the right personnel as missteps in the hiring process can immediately put your firm’s culture at risk. Based on both the successes and failures in our past hires, we have found that answers to the following seven questions help guide us in our hiring decisions.

Top seven questions for new hires:

  1. What has been the most important outside experience of your college life? Although we all are looking for the stellar student with the 4.0 GPA, the value of the non-academic experience in determining future success of someone within your firm cannot be overlooked. Often the answer to this question helps us understand how socially adept that young graduate may be and how impactful they can be to those around them.
  2. What are your life goals – not just your career goals? Work-life balance is essential to good health and happiness. Seeking a balance also produces focused, productive team members who have plans, not just for their career but also for their community and family going forward.
  3. Which people at our firm would you like to talk to in order to better understand our work environment? Giving candidates the opportunity to talk to their peers and those in leadership helps those candidates better understand how they will fit in. There are multiple generations within your workforce so understanding those differences is essential.
  4. What kind of leadership experiences and skills do you have? An absence of interest in leading might be comfortable to some firms, but most prefer individuals who want to grow, lead, and manage.
  5. What are your strengths and weaknesses? How someone responds to an introspective question can tell you a lot about how they will work with others. You want someone who recognizes what they can and cannot do. You do not want someone who is so grandiose in their self-evaluation that they will only focus on themselves.
  6. What is your definition of teamwork? Almost everything we do involves a diverse team environment. Your clients and consultants are also diverse teams. If you can’t explain your experience in working with a team, then how can you succeed in the team sport of the AEC industry?
  7. What is your definition of work ethic? This can be a hot topic as each generation thinks the next generation does not have a proper work ethic. In an interview years ago, the head coach of the women’s basketball team at Texas Tech University was asked how he was able to sustain the success of his team. He explained that he recruited almost exclusively off the farms and ranches in the Midwest. To those players, sports was recreation and they had also experienced hard work firsthand. In fact, his top player at the time had grown up on a dairy farm, and, although basketball practice started at 6:30 a.m., she told the coach that this was the latest she had been able to sleep in her life. Ask that person the meaning of work ethic, and they can probably give you a very clear answer.
Bottom-line. Everything starts with your core values. If you strictly talk about the visible signs of your culture – the fun you have, the events you sponsor, the time off, or the health benefits – then you haven’t defined your basic culture or core values. And if you do not get the staff in place that lives and breathes those core values, your firm is doomed to failure.

Stephen Lucy is CEO of JQ with offices in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and Lubbock, Texas. Contact him at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.