Using Your Core Values to Navigate Startup Crises: A Founder’s Guide

Working on your core values as a startup founder could change the way you perceive and handle crises and could be the difference between success and failure. In this article, I’ll explain why and I’ll give you a simple how-to guide to navigate crises in your venture and come out alive and stronger.

The Evolution of Entrepreneurial Values

In my young adult days in the 80s and 90s, I don’t recall aspiring entrepreneurs talking about values. People who wanted to succeed in business were implicitly on the same page, which consisted of a dream cocktail of being your own boss, making money, creating a brand, and being looked up to. Maybe it was a bit more sophisticated than that, but not by much. As a friend used to say, “It’s all about a better life and more money.” It was that simple. There was no real notion of work-life balance or the meaning of life for entrepreneurs. Those were issues left to intellectuals and philosophers. Just as soldiers in the trenches weren’t preoccupied with their hairstyle, entrepreneurs of the past were more focused on changing their own world rather than the world at large.

Why Values Matter in Today’s Entrepreneurial Landscape

But the world has changed, and with that, what it means to be an entrepreneur. Why? I’ll leave that debate to historians to ponder over the roots of the change. As a humble coach and entrepreneur, I’ll just try to reflect on what’s important now and how values have taken centre stage in the life of a successful startup founder.

The Role of Values in Handling Adversity

So, what’s the point of working on values in a professional context? I could give you many reasons, such as getting clarity on your vision, making sure that your actions are aligned with your values, or finding meaning in life.

But today, I’ll focus on one practical application: handling adversity. There is an old saying: when the going gets tough, the tough get going. However, this notion is a bit outdated, and this alpha-male approach to problem-solving doesn’t resonate much with the new generation.

Values-Driven Entrepreneurship as a New Paradigm

The current paradigm of business is to find meaning and make sure that whatever we are doing aligns with our values. And that’s even truer when the going gets tough, which invariably does in the journey of a startup entrepreneur. Whether it’s a cash flow crunch, a problem with a co-founder, or an urgent need to pivot because customers are not thrilled by our MVP, crises show up. These are moments where, to surmount the incredible pressure we are under and keep walking in the do-or-die tunnel we are in, we need to understand the higher motives of this treacherous journey. While with our fancy university degree and professional experience, we could be enjoying the security of steady employment and playing with the kids at weekends, instead, we are trapped in a conflict with our co-founder or wondering where and when the next investment is going to come.

Transforming Challenges and Crises into Learning Opportunities with Values

These are precisely the pivotal moments when values come to the rescue. And if you have worked on your values as a founder and on your company’s values beforehand, you are armed to face the obstacles. You understand the meaning of the struggle, and your fight starts making sense. In fact, you see your struggle to overcome your challenges as an integral part of living your values. If you haven’t worked on your values, you are left wondering what this struggle is all about and lacking the mental strength to get through those tough times. I am not saying that if you know your values, you won’t suffer. Suffering is OK and part of being human. But seeing your challenge through the lens of your values gives you a sense of hope rather than despair. And it’s often all you need to realize your vision, overcome the obstacles, and reach your goals.

Supporting Data on the Importance of Values in Business

I had convincing results getting clients to dig into their values to handle tough times. But more importantly, the importance of working on values to overcome crises is based on data. Research supports the significance of aligning personal and organizational values for entrepreneurs and businesses. Studies also show that a strong alignment between our values as entrepreneurs and those of our business leads to increased motivation, commitment, satisfaction, and resilience. A few books cover that topic, such as The Four Principles of Values-Based Leadership by Harry Kraemer, Start with Why by Simon Sinek, or The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which focuses on helping individuals live meaningful lives, also emphasizes the critical role of values in guiding entrepreneurs through their journey. Values clarification is a cornerstone of both ACT and the guidance for entrepreneurs. Identifying and committing to one’s values provides a guiding light for setting goals, navigating challenges, and handling adversities.

A Practical Guide to Applying Values During Crises

By working on your values today, you will be more equipped to handle tomorrow’s crisis. How? You can do it by shifting your perspective. Instead of viewing the crisis as a purely negative event, you can see it as an opportunity to apply and reaffirm your core values. Let’s take as an example an all-too-common crisis for startups: financial difficulties. Assuming you’ve already done the groundwork on your values (I’ll come back to that part later), here’s a protocol (we’ll call it the value-based crisis management protocol) that you can apply and transpose to any crisis:

Value-Based Crisis Management Protocol

  • Assess the Situation Through Your Values: Look at the crisis at hand and ask yourself which values are being tested or could be applied. For instance, if your startup is facing financial difficulties, your value of ‘resilience’ might come into play.
  • Reframe the Challenge: Instead of viewing the crisis as a setback, see it as a challenge that invites you to live your values more fully. Your financial crunch can be reframed as a chance to get creative with resources, reflecting, for example, a value of resourcefulness.
  • Set Value-Driven Goals: Establish goals for navigating the crisis that are based on your values. If one of your values is ‘community,’ you might set a goal to seek support from your network or to provide support to others, even in tough times.
  • Take Action: Implement value-driven actions. If ‘leadership’ is a core value, you might take the lead in showing your team and stakeholders that you’re committed to steering the ship through stormy waters.
  • Communicate: Share with your team how your values are guiding your crisis management. Share your higher mission and why it’s worth fighting. This not only ensures transparency but can also inspire others to think and act in alignment with shared values.
  • Reflect and Learn: Post-crisis, reflect on how well you upheld your values and what you learned. This reflection can reinforce your values and improve your response to future challenges.

Engaging with Values in the Midst of Crisis

If you are already in the middle of a crisis while reading this article and you haven’t worked on your values yet, don’t panic; it’s not too late! Put aside the crisis for an hour, breathe, and sit down in your favourite armchair. The world is not going to collapse. Grab a pen and a notepad, and write down your professional and business values. It’s ok to be unsure about some values. What’s meaningful is to identify what’s important to you; these are the core values you want to live by. Also bear in mind that whatever you write down is a work in progress. You will have ample opportunity to add, subtract, and tweak your values in the future. An hour is all you need to get perspective. Then go back to your crisis and see how to manage it through the lens of your values by applying the value-based crisis management protocol just discussed.

Proactive Values Clarification for Better Crisis Management

If you are not in the middle of a crisis, then it’s the perfect opportunity to dedicate time to define your core values while you are not under pressure. Initially, you will need maybe 2-4 hours for that task, and you may want to spread it over a few days. For working on your personal values, the ideal time to do it is over the weekend. To work on your professional values, you can do some of the work on your own and some with your co-founders to ensure you share most values.

Defining and Refining Your Values

The simplest way to work on values is with a pen and paper. Staying away from screens will help you to focus on your vision, on what strongly resonates with you. Though there are sophisticated tools to identify values, just writing them down does the job. For each value you list, you want to make sure it’s really a value by checking what actions you have taken in the past that have expressed that value and how you felt when you did it. If you can’t find any action connected to that value, ask yourself why. That will shed clarity on whether or not it’s a real value of yours or just a fantasy that doesn’t truly connect with who you are.

Continuous Engagement with Values Strengthens Resilience

You can do this deep work on your own or with the help of a coach. Take your time and think it through; you will not regret it. If you’ve never done it before, you’ll be surprised how much clarity and perspective you get out of this exercise. You will start looking at your activities in terms of how aligned they are with your values.

Value Maintenance: Regular Reflection on Values for Ongoing Alignment

Finally, once you’ve done the initial work, spend some time once a week reviewing your values. Values are a bit like a house, they need maintenance. They need regular service. At the end of each week, look at how you lived your values. Even 10-20 minutes can do the job. Sometimes you’ll naturally want to spend more time on it. Where and when did you live out your values? What has changed? What would you like to modify? How can you manifest more of such and such value in the coming week? You will start looking at your activities in terms of values rather than box ticking. And next time a crisis happens, you will be ready to reframe the challenge into a value exercise by going to the value-based crisis management protocol.

Conclusion: Values Transform Entrepreneurship and Crisis Management

To summarize, working on your values can help you through tough times in your startup. Once you’ve defined your values, you can apply the value-based crisis management protocol to use the crisis as an opportunity to learn and grow. Clarity in your values can give meaning to your suffering. You will achieve purpose by changing your perspective on what you are experiencing. Value work sets your journey on a higher level, on a level led by your core values and how you want to show up.


I would welcome your feedback, and I’d be very grateful if you could share your experiences in working with values and handling crises. Please write your comment on the LinkedIn post of this article or contact me directly.

Photo by Christian Sterk on Unsplash