Leaders are using the term “company values” with such force and frequency that it’s hard not to toss it into the infamous camp of marketing buzzwords. Google data shows that “company values” as a search term is twice as popular today as it was in 2015. Talk of company values is not to be dismissed as a momentary, buzzy phenomenon — energy around company values is a sign of our times; it urges consumers, employees, leaders, and shareholders to reexamine how they do business.

Having a productive conversation about company values starts with a clear definition. Current chatter is riddled with miscommunication because leaders lack a shared understanding of the term and often conflate “company values” with vision, mission, purpose, and principles. Here, we clarify each.

In the metaphorical journey of any company, the vision points to the intended destination, the mission indicates what the firm is doing to get there, and the purpose states why the firm’s journey is warranted:

Principles are the road signs helping the crew move forward on the journey in sync; values show how the company considers its people and the planet along the way:

Let alone “company values,” the term “value” itself is often the source of confusion given how ubiquitously leaders use the word across contexts. Be sure to see this blog published by my wonderful colleague Maxie Schmidt to understand the definition of “value” in its many common use cases.