How to build an ethical creative business that honors your core values
In this article, you’ll get an activity that will show you how to use your core values to build an ethical creative business that can help make the world a better place.
Obviously, in this big crazy world, there is a lot that’s out of your control. We all make compromises, a lot of them. We all have to grapple with adverse circumstances (and often actual adversaries).
In order avoid feeling like you’re continually failing, it’s crucial to acknowledge that there are things you can’t fix on your own. (And in parallel, of course, to contribute in any way you can to collective action for change.)
There are also so many ways you do have control over your life, your actions, and the impact you have on others.
Getting intentional about identifying when and how that’s the case…and then taking action…can have a much larger effect than you might expect.
There’s a lot to take in here, so in order to make this information more accessible and digestible, I’ve also published this post as an episode on the Autonomous Creative Newsletter podcast feed.
Listen to this post:
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This is a bit of a long one, so here’s an overview of where we’re going:
First, I’ll make an argument for why you should use your core values as a powerful tool to build your confidence as a professional creative. You’ll be able to feel great about earning a solid living with what you do. Oh, and along the way, help build the world you want to live in.
Then, I’ll give you a step-by-step activity to sort out your core values and apply them to your creative business.
Finally, I’ll share an example: How I am using my core values to improve Autonomous Creative. Namely, by getting clearer on how what we do is unique, and why it’s valuable, as well as how I can take steps to live my values more fully through the work I put out into the world.
Here’s the problem with running a creative business, in a nutshell:
When creatives get tangled up with the B-word (bizzznizzz), we typically have a LOT of feelings.
The truth is…
We want to help people. We want people to see our work.
Putting price tags on any of that feels problematic, somehow.
People worry about becoming—or, almost as distressingly, being seen as—money-grubbing evil capitalists.
This danger isn’t imaginary. There’s a ton of pressure from the world around us, projecting fantasies of the creative life that hold us to the romantic ideal that creatives (and especially women) should be doing what we do purely for the love of it.
Any focus on the business side casts doubt on our creative bona fides.
No quarter is given for the fact that this is our work—our actual labor—and we need to eat to be able to keep on doing it.
We’re told that business = selling out.
When I tell people I’m not making comics these days because I burned out on working my ass off and not getting paid anywhere near enough to do it, the response is often patronizing, judgy pity.
We’re told that having a business means becoming complicit with the machine.
We’re told that there’s no such thing as an ethical creative business. That we’re becoming part of the white supremacist, patriarchal, rapacious, extractive capitalist PROBLEM. I’ve been called out any number of times for charging more than a token amount for my courses and programs (that I spend 5 days a week running—the same courses that feed my family and pay my team).
It’s destabilizing and undermining
The answer to all that isn’t to run away, or to undercharge for what you do, or to hide your business from the world.
Quite the contrary: Building a successful, ethical business offers you a chance to do significant good in the world, and to counteract all those myths and assumptions. You need to see the power you hold, and then use it intentionally.
Artist and branding expert Amy Walsh teaches that creating a brand is a form of world-building. A business is, by its nature, a collective enterprise. At minimum, there’s you and your customers. You also have suppliers. And you may have team members. That’s a lot of people who all need to work together in some way or another.
The way you run your business defines the rules of engagement.
And if you set those rules to support your ethics and values, that is the culture you’re creating in your corner of the universe.
Here’s Amy, in a newsletter a while back, on an intervention staged at the RISD art museum by artist Jess Brown:
We can’t make all the change all by ourselves — if you are seeking to make cultural or social change in your work, you are already connected to social and cultural movements, and there are many like you.
Every time you stage an intervention, you show us a different picture of how life can be, and also a critical look at what “normal” is now. You change the story we are living by — for one person, for your audience, for a moment, a day, a life. This helps make change person by person, community by community, which is how all change is made.
Feminist marketing and business coach Kelly Diels’ tagline is, “We are the culture makers.” (Note that “we.” That’s her values shining through as well.)
She frequently writes about how women and feminist business owners have the right and responsibility to build sustainable businesses that build more economic justice in the world—including for their owners.
“USE WHAT YOU’VE GOT TO CHANGE EVERYTHING. Your life. Your workplace. Your business. Our world.”
This is not about attempting to achieve moral superiority or ideological purity.
This is about living in congruence with what you believe and creating it in the world.
But the concepts of “world-building” and “culture-making”, while inspiring, are rather…non-specific. What does that actually look like on the ground, in action?
I’ve been tasked with “core values” exercises multiple times, and after perusing lists and picking words, I was always left feeling like, “That’s nice. But what does it really mean?”
After all, I’m confident that my values already guide my choices in a general way, and simply writing a list of things that matter (and then never looking at it again) doesn’t help me make decisions and take action. It doesn’t feel real.
And, when you’re faced with your day-to-day work, you can end up feeling like you have to do mental gymnastics in order to force-fit your values and your actions together.
How can my core values actually become useful as a guide to how I work, how I help my clients, and how we grow as a creative business?
- What does it look like to put your values into action day to day?
- How would your business be different if you used your values as a guide for every decision?
- How would your relationships with your audience be more engaged if you were able to project your values consistently through your marketing and messaging?
- How would your perfect-fit clients feel about you and your work if they knew you share values?
The turning point: Learning how to use my core values to design a creative business that is both ethical and profitable
Finally, via the work of Tara McMullin and Run Like Clockwork, I encountered the idea of “operationalizing” my values. This is not a new concept, but every time coaches had instructed me to figure out my values and use them to guide me, this step had been skipped.
What does it mean to operationalize your values?
📌 Operationalizing your values means testing abstract, high-level values against how you’re actually working in order to connect these values to concrete actions and decisions, as well as to look for opportunities to more effectively create a culture aligned with your values.
What can you accomplish by operationalizing your values?
When I operationalized our values at Autonomous Creative (details on that below), I felt more confident and rooted in my business and in my work with clients. I was also able to identify where I was less-than-aligned with my values, and take steps to do better.
The result of that work is that I’m able to make confident decisions faster, even when the stakes are high. I’m also able to share what we do at Autonomous Creative more effectively, and speak directly to right-fit clients who value what I do.
- You will create a guide for your decisions that offers you confidence and clarity.
- You’ll feel more strongly that your offers are of value to the right people, which means you can sell with enthusiasm.
- You’ll know what your core messages are, which will lead to clearer and more powerful marketing efforts.
- Your ideal clients will recognize you much more easily, and identify that you’re the right person to work with, because you share values.
- The clarity and strength of your message and the actions you take can create or support a cultural shift in the communities you live and work in.
Before we begin, a note of caution:
For the empathetic, values-led kind of people I tend to work with, operationalizing values can open the door to counter-productive perfectionism—for all the real reasons we already discussed in the intro, above.
I encourage you, instead of focusing on how you’re falling short from measuring up to an ideal, or not meeting your goals toward structuring a more ethical creative business, to first notice how you are already working in ways that feel right to you. And then, where that’s not the case, let that become a guide for how to resolve the problem.
Be brave with your commitments, because taking consistent action to live out your values can be uncomfortable…
But plan out reasonable steps. Accept that you can’t and won’t bring every detail of your business into alignment, and that doesn’t mean you can’t also continue doing amazing work that represents your values in the world.
Everything we do is in a state of flux, always.
Communicate with your audience about your values and how you’re living them out. Include where you struggle. Invite their response—you’d be amazed how powerful this is for people who are truly the right audience for your work, who themselves likely struggle with the same things.
How to intentionally use your core values to design a creative business that is both ethical and profitable
Part 1: Identify your core values
In order to feel the strength that comes from action rooted in your values, your commitment to those values must be substantive rather than performative. Authenticity and confidence stems from congruency between what you believe and what you do.
Just a quick warning that big feelings may lie ahead! I’ve included time expectations at each step. Consider using time boundaries (like a timer) to keep it all in check and not get sucked in.
Get connected with what you care about
Here are a few prompts to use for a quick journaling session to start thinking about how what you care about informs your actions.
Try writing on these prompts for 15 minutes (total time, not per question).
- Describe a time when you felt uncomfortable, out of alignment, or compromised in your work life.
- How do you do your work differently from other people who do similar work? Why does it matter that you do things that way?
- Is there something you hope to help correct or counter in your field with your work?
- What causes matter to you, and why?
Find words for your core values
If you’re like me, you have a basic sense of what’s right and wrong for you and what you think is important, but you have a hard time mustering (or feeling confident in) the words.
That’s where this massive list of value-words in the activity may come in handy.
As I said, I’ve done this multiple times, and come up with new answers each time, so it may take a while to settle into words that really resonate for you.
As for timing on this stage, I suggest you take it in 2-3 short sessions (5-10 minutes each) over the course of a week.
You can do it all at once, but if you allow your nonconscious mind to work on this for a few days between sessions, you’ll probably come up with more ideas than if you power through.
How to proceed:
- Read through this list and identify words that resonate with you. Look for words that feel connected to how you show up in the world as a person who makes the work that you make. Bold them, or circle, if you’ve printed it out. Follow your gut at this stage.
- Copy-paste or re-write the words that are speaking to you the most strongly on a new sheet. You might end up with 10 or 20 words. That’s OK.
- Group words that feel related. Let this list simmer for a few days.
- From that list, cut it down to 10. Recopy it onto a clean sheet of paper.
- Later, come back and see which of the words on your list stand out and feel most aligned. Highlight 3-5 words. That doesn’t mean the rest aren’t your values also! But, in the context of your creative business life, take note of which 3-5 are most important or relevant.
- Copy your 3-5 core values onto a fresh page!
Part 2: Put your values to work
In each of the primary areas of your creative business, examine what you’re doing through the lens of one of your values, then identify the impact of living that value. Use this information to operationalize your value further in concrete ways.
Do this activity for each of the core values you narrowed down in the activity above.
This part of the activity is likely to take 15 minutes per value that you examine.
Again, you’ll get more out of it if you do a quick, gut-check pass on everything, then come back to it several days later and give it more thought.
- Why is this value important to me?
- Why is this value important to my clients?
- How does this value show up in how I make or do my work?
- How does this value show up in the customer experience?
- How does this value show up in the design of my offer and pricing?
- How does this value show up in my marketing?
- How does this value show up in my sales process?
- How does this value show up in my operations (meaning administration, financials, project management, team expectations, etc.)?
- What does all of the above say about how I do things differently from other people in my field?
- What effect does my value-aligned action have on me? On my clients?
- What does this value mean to me internally? What does it mean to others externally?
- What does this value mean customers can expect from me before & after they make a purchase?
- What does this value mean my team members can expect from me?
- What could I do to operationalize this value further? Or, to look at it another way, how could I remove obstacles, such as existing processes, strategy, or relationships, to this value being expressed more fully?
- What will I refuse to do in relation to this value?
Define the steps you’ll take to take action on operationalizing this value.
Create a timeline for those steps.
Part 3: Write a cohesive Values Statement
Create a values statement that sums up the most important insights from this activity. I’ve included our values statement at Autonomous Creative as an example below.
This may take you 15-30 minutes.
After you have gone through this process for each of your core values, you might be inspired to revise your values, or to flesh out the values you’ve identified.
Your values statement is a living document.
You’ll learn more about your core values, you’ll get more specific, you’ll find nuance when you put your ideas into action.
Your values evolve the same way you do, because they’re a part of you.
What can you do with your Values Statement?
First of all, post your values statement up somewhere you’ll see it regularly. You’ve already identified action items for ways you want to further operationalize your values in order to support your goal of designing a more ethical creative business (under Steps, above), so add those items to a task list, or create times on your calendar to implement them.
Then, share your core values with the world:
- Write a blog post. Add your values to your About page. Share your values statement on social media. Start the conversation around things you care about!
- You can also add your values statement to a sales page for your services (usually in the part where you introduce yourself), and share whatever’s relevant in your sales conversations and guarantees.
- You can share your values in job postings when you hire.
- You can create policies for your creative business that you can post publicly, regarding diversity, equity, inclusion, sustainability, customer service commitments, or anything else you need.
- You can add your values as contractual requirements for partners or suppliers (for example, asking for a supplier to commit to equitable hiring for a project).
OK, that all sounds massively overwhelming. What does it look like in practice to operationalize your core values?
First, I’ll share our values statement, and below, some notes on how I developed it.
When I went through this process initially, I did it pretty quickly. I was in a rush, overcommitted as usual. I had done values exercises before, as I mentioned, so I didn’t worry too much about choosing words. Interestingly, though, I ended up with some new words I hadn’t found in the past, and I also felt free to invent and add ways to express values that would never be on any list.
Also, these are the core values of my business, Autonomous Creative. They’re also values I hold personally, obviously, but if I were to make a list for myself in my personal life, it would look quite different. Notice, for example, that “creativity” isn’t on this list. Obviously, I value creativity. But we don’t try to approach our work “creatively”, exactly. We embrace original or non-standard solutions, but that’s covered under “objectivity”. We assess evidence from first principles (which calls for creativity).
Over time, I’ve come back to this statement and I find it helps me recenter myself. I’ve tweaked it to get closer to the reality of how we work. And I am reminded to keep working to do better.
Our values statement at Autonomous Creative
These values guide the way we work, and the way our business operates, every day
🌟 Autonomy – We strive to take responsibility for making decisions and acting for ourselves and in alignment with our life conditions and values. We refuse to allow others to decide for us. We refuse to coerce or try to decide for others what’s right for them.
What does this look like in action?
We will strive to question received social constructs (such as capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy), and make independent decisions that derive from what is best for us and our communities. These decisions will be autonomous and aligned when they are based on our other values: objectivity, human-first, and courage.
🌟 Human-first – We are humans first. We strive to put human needs and realities at the core of all the decisions we make and actions we take. We refuse to align with capitalist, patriarchal norms that suppress human needs for the sake of productivity and an outward, false charade of “success.”
What does this look like in action?
With clients, our team members, and ourselves, we acknowledge that each person needs to take care of themself first if they are to have the ability to pursue their higher-order needs and goals. Caring for our health, both physical and mental, our relationships, and taking rest, all are essential underpinnings for acting courageously with a clear mind.
This means that we will strive to be well-resourced in all ways so that we can serve our clients from a place of strength. We show care for each other and support each person in their quest to develop their creative life and ethical business based on the precondition of what they need to be well-resourced.
🌟 Objectivity, clear-mindedness – We strive to use clear, objective thinking to discover creative and effective solutions. We refuse to let fuzzy, magical thinking be an excuse for staying stuck.
What does this look like in action?
Our most human characteristic is to fall back on instinct and emotion…and that often means recapitulating the exact toxic decisions and systems we strive to escape.
Objectivity means paying attention to data—information we collect—and making decisions on that basis. Combined with our value of putting humanity first, some of that data must necessarily be connected to emotion: How do we feel about some aspect of a project or how we’re functioning? We will then make decisions based on the information that feeling gives us, rather than getting lost in the feeling.
These two values combined: human-first + objectivity, as a basis for decision making, are what lead to true autonomy, and the ability to operate from a place of courage.
🌟 Courage before confidence – We strive to act courageously and transparently. We will model imperfect action as a path to change. We refuse to wait for “perfection”, but acknowledge that the only way we attain our goals is through iteration and willingness to fail.
What does this look like in action?
Jessica’s motto in her early 20s was “Dare to be Bad.” It’s a lot harder to be bad than to be good. Being bad means living with the gap between your current abilities and what you imagine for yourself. But allowing yourself to be bad, and acting anyway, is the only way to get good.
“Dare to be Bad” means saying yes to opportunities that come up that are a major stretch. It means sharing work before it’s polished. It means learning to trust yourself via doing hard things and surviving.
We believe the result of daring and transparency is not only more personal success (however that be autonomously defined), but also lifting up and connecting all the people around us, by showing how we can be human and also do great things.
Here’s what it looked like for me to develop this Values Statement
Step 1: I chose words for our Core Values
I went through the same steps I outline above. I combed through the list of values-words and made my list. But then I combined and rephrased a few so that they got closer to what I really meant. And “human-first” wasn’t on the list, but someone else doing this activity used it, and I thought, Yes. That’s what I’ve been looking for!
(TBH, I’m still not thrilled with the term “human-first.” It’s a bit fuzzy. What it means to me is that we are all humans first.
Human-first doesn’t mean all other humans first, before you. It means you working from a place of strength and safety, supporting others seeking the same. Living that value leads to us rejecting typical ways of working and running a business that don’t take into consideration that we are humans, our needs and realities are all different, and they change all the time. We need to be flexible and to prioritize care for ourselves and each other over other concerns. That’s what makes an ethical creative business tick.)
Step 2: I took some notes on how each of my core value lines up with our actions in various domains of the business.
It was…cursory. I had a shorter list of questions to work from, and did it fast. It looked like this:
🌟 Value – Autonomy
- full ownership through delegation and areas of responsibility.
- ability to self-ID the needs at the time, encouraged to lead sessions, create a path through the work, make decisions about what they need.
- self taught and coaching levels, ability to remain a member as needed
- hiring self-starters who want to take an area and run with it.
marketing & sales
- giving all the info, revealing control mechanisms, and transparency in sales process
- It’s why we’re shocking
- Trad education tries to make us cogs. Totally inappropriate for artists.
- It’s what artists want most – ability to carve their own path
🌟 Value – Objectivity, clear-mindedness
- metrics, collecting and using to make decisions
- training regarding decision-making over and over
- clear statement of value
- all programs hinge on this [I was skimping on this one since it’s been at the core of what we do for so long, it felt fully hashed-over]
- team is encouraged to reflect on decisions and give helpful feedback to tie the decisions to information and reality.
marketing & sales
- all information needed will be provided. We will not use coercion or triggers to sell.
- strategic choices and better outcomes. necessary balance to human-first.
🌟 Value – Human-first
- we will put guardrails in place to make sure we’re not overtaxing our timelines, and that we have redundancy needed to cover when we need time or space.
- We will strive to be well-resourced in all ways so that we can serve our clients from a place of strength.
- We support self-forgiveness in all phases of development. we practice a key life skill that supports resiliency – lose yourself and find yourself again
- We make payment plans that are accessible
- we price fairly to support our own needs
- we build for multiple learning styles and for people who have been left out of the system
- we work to establish human centered policies and flexibility, as well as reasonable pay scales and benefits.
marketing & sales
- we listen to customers and take their concerns seriously
- When I’m well-resourced, I can operate from a grounded place.
- When we create businesses where we are under-resourced – we are in scarcity, and reactive. that’s when we’ve created working conditions that don’t support a [measured, creative, disruptive] way of doing business according to our values.
- We are used to functioning with poor resources, poor soil. So we recreate that. It’s comfortable. That’s why I have 2 jobs.
- You can’t care for others if you’re in danger.
- First step is to ensure that your needs are met. Love, safety, food, water, etc.
- What would well-resourced look like for me?
- Working around energy peaks seasonally. When I’ve got to take care of kids, or prep for something else, want to make space for that.
- Being human first. Build around that
- Responsive to need while thinking about business strategy.
- Daily: what do I need before what does the biz need?
- Don’t put your joy at the end of this conveyor belt
- Ask: do I have capacity for more?
- The energy devoted to self belief
- Do good work and also enjoy doing it
🌟 Value – Courage before confidence
- we develop hypotheses and test them live
- we share openly and support our members to do lead and take risks
- we open the floor to feedback and accept when we’re wrong
- We challenge creatives to invest in themselves.
- we ask team members to suggest ideas and try new things
- we ask for and accept feedback
- marketing & sales
- we share openly about what we’re doing and why
- What is a “good” product? Don’t wait for perfection. Release a work in progress
- Imperfect action
- acting your way into a new way of thinking
- Dare to be bad
Step 3: I wrote a values statement
As I was creating those brainstorm notes, I noticed how each of the values was a counterweight to the others, and they all work together to create the ethos of Autonomous Creative.
I wrote about what each value meant, using the structure: [Name of the value] [I will strive to…] [I will refuse to…]. Then I tried to paint a clearer picture of what that would look like in action in a paragraph or two.
Step 4: What next?
Honestly, I didn’t do that much with the statement at first. I did share this whole process with our internal team, and it provoked very useful and positive discussion.
But externally? I planned this post (like a year ago). I wrote about our values to some program applicants. I had a bunch of ideas of other things to do that I haven’t done yet. But there is no deadline for this. The process is slow, but it’s still in motion.
Mostly, this exercise made me so much clearer about what it is we really do, and why it’s important. I’ve found myself able to talk about all of these values in coaching calls, in marketing materials, and in live conversations. It’s been reassuring and subtly empowering.
After all, business is hard. There are so many times I question myself. But self-confidence in my decisions and my sense of authenticity derives from acting in congruency with my values. It’s a great comfort to actually know what they are and what that means.
Remember: Trying to get to 100% perfect on your values is just another form of self-flagellation.
Striving for ideological purity will stop you in your tracks.
We will need to challenge ourselves to be a little braver, to take actions aligned with our values that put us out of our comfort zone…but also to learn to live with the dual realties of pride and alignment with our values alongside a bit of discomfort and frustration that we’re not all the way there.
This is an iterative, progressive process.
And, anyway, perfectionism runs up against our core values of human-first and courage before confidence!
I encourage you to block out a few short times over the next week or so to operationalize your own values. I think you’ll find it’s worth the effort.
I’d love to hear how this activity works for you, and learn more about how you’re working towards building a thriving, ethical creative business. If you’ve got questions, insights to share, discoveries you’ve made, or feedback about the activity, leave a comment down below (click here to jump to the comment section) or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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Embracing sensitivity in your creative life
with Eleanor Chaney
So many creatives struggle with the impulse to keep a low profile out of fear of what people will think. That can make it hard to appreciate the value of what you do in the world, which in turn leads to over-delivery and underpricing…and the inevitable result: burnout. I’ve invited Eleanor Chaney, a coach for highly sensitive creatives, to help point the way to navigate those barriers, and find a path to feel confident as a professional creative out in the world.
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