The Importance of Values-based Leadership During Challenging Times


Cornerstone Research President Yesim Richardson talks about how relying on core values is an essential part of how she and other leaders serve our firm.

When Cornerstone Research shut down its physical offices in March 2020 due to COVID-19, we expected it would last a few weeks, perhaps a few months. More than a year and a half later, long after most people thought things would be “back to normal,” we and others continue to navigate changing waters.

Make core values central to firm culture

Cornerstone Research’s core values have provided the guidance needed to maintain the highest levels of service and grow our business while continuing to support our people during the most disruptive period any of us had ever known. In particular, acting on our commitment to our people has proven vital to our success, and our experience through a time of profound uncertainty has reinforced the importance of values-based leadership as nothing else could.

  • We are dedicated to quality and excellence in everything we do.
  • Our commitment to our people promotes a highly supportive culture.
  • Clients and experts rely on us to deliver best-in-class service.
  • ​We are a “one-firm” firm.

Collaborative teamwork and support have been a part of Cornerstone Research’s DNA from our earliest days. Two of our firm’s three cofounders—Cindy Zollinger and Christine Nelson—were each raising families when they started the company. As they worked to build a strong business foundation, they also saw firsthand how critical collaboration and support are to delivering outstanding service to our clients and experts.

Today, I and other firm leaders constantly reference our core values, which are a tangible, natural part of our corporate culture. When times of uncertainty hit, our values provide a shared reference point and common language for how we approach any situation.

Maintain consistent two-way communication

When Cornerstone Research had to suddenly transition to remote work, we relied on established two-way communication channels that proved critical to supporting our staff and continuously delivering on our client commitment.

We sent periodic surveys to make sure we heard the perspectives of as many of our people as possible, and we shared survey results to let our people know how we planned to address their concerns. From the initial shutdown until now, we have encouraged regular check-ins with team members about how they are faring in the remote work environment. We consistently call upon our shared values to maintain our culture of connectedness.

Cornerstone Research President Yesim Richardson talks about how relying on core values is an essential part of how she and other leaders serve our firm.

Acknowledge uncertainty and explain decision-making framework

Too often, leaders feel they have to give the impression of having everything “figured out.” But pretending there is certainty where none exists costs them credibility with their employees. When everyone—leadership, staff, clients, families—is experiencing upheaval, we have no choice but to acknowledge uncertainty and anxiety.

While we have recognized the disruption happening in our peoples’ work and home lives, we have also made it a priority to communicate the state of our firm and our business. A key part of our communications has been emphasizing how individuals and teams have adapted to provide the quality that is our hallmark, and how, despite the disruption brought on by the pandemic, our confidence in our firm’s long-term success never wavered.

Provide practical resources to improve day-to-day work life

Values-based leadership requires both engaged communication and purposeful action. The turbulence of the pandemic left very few areas of our lives untouched, and the move to remote work blurred (or obliterated) traditional boundaries between home and office. We had to adapt or create new structures to support our staff in their day-to-day work, and to maintain the connections so integral to our culture.

Recognize different situations for different people

Leaders must remember that one size never fits all. Our people have diverse life circumstances and the COVID-19 pandemic affected everyone differently. Our core values helped us recognize and acknowledge these differences, and keep our people connected, supported, and productive.

During the pandemic, we launched new resource groups to create forums for people in different living arrangements to share their challenges and tips for success, including people with young children at home, people living alone, people living with multiple roommates, and people who were or are still are far from family.

To further bolster a sense of connection amid the increasing focus on social justice, we started a number of affinity groups to bring together people with shared backgrounds or social identities. The groups have fostered a sense of support and inclusion during an uncertain time, and will help us promote a more diverse and inclusive workplace going forward.

Most importantly, remain committed to our people

During challenging situations, employees want to know, “What will happen to me?”

Our people are our firm. They are the source of our success, and supporting them has been our most essential bedrock value during the pandemic. We understood early on that we needed to take concrete steps to address their fears and uncertainty—over their health, their livelihoods, and their communities.

We worked hard to successfully avoid lay-offs and long-term salary freezes, and we have continued to pay full salaries of our facilities staff despite offices being largely shuttered. We provided our people with the ability to take leaves or flex their time, as well as multiple stipends for people to buy equipment and supplies to work from home regardless of their position. Our support services and benefits, along with social gatherings outside the office, have helped us all.

Uncertainty is a given for every leader in every organization, and the workplace as we knew it pre-pandemic will most likely never return. No matter what the future brings, Cornerstone Research will continue to be guided by our core values as we reimagine our workplaces going forward.

The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of Cornerstone Research.


  • Boston

Yesim C. Richardson