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The 10 Essentials to Building a Values-Driven Company

And why it is more important than ever in the era of remote work

An earlier version of this article was featured in Fast Company.

What do world-class sourdough and world-class companies have in common? A thriving, well-tended culture. (Sorry, we’ve been on a quarantine baking kick.) Like a good sourdough starter, a company culture must be continually shaped and fed by its leaders. A well-articulated and well-implemented set of core values is the key ingredient for success.

Values provide a blueprint for how people in an organization make decisions, especially the hard decisions. Ken Gosnell, the CEO of Experience, captured it well, “When a leader knows their values, they are able to make decisions quickly and with confidence. When the leader is unclear, the organization becomes chaotic.”

This blueprint is critical to get right in the early days of the company so that as it scales, decisions can be made in an efficient, decentralized manner while remaining culturally consistent. This becomes even more important as companies move to remote and hybrid staffing models. Modern technologies like Slack and Zoom can only do so much to stitch an organization together; timeless tech like values statements, and the behaviors that support those values, must be a key part of the glue that unites.

While many companies have a values statement posted on their website, relatively few have succeeded in institutionalizing them in behaviors. In this article, we lay out some common mistakes as well as some key enablers of success we’ve seen high functioning companies implement to build a values-driven organization.

Signature of Jake Saper

Less is more

One of the most common mistakes when it comes to crafting values statements is creating too many. One startup we’ve worked with came up with a list of 47 values they felt strongly about as a company. In theory, it might sound better to have a long list to cover many bases, but in actuality, it dilutes their meaning; employees don’t know which values to prioritize. The lack of focus can end up negatively impacting the culture.

As a best practice, we encourage companies to strive to boil their values down to between three and five. The fewer, the better because they’re more likely to be remembered and institutionalized within decision-making behaviors throughout the company.

A quick business history lesson: The above-mentioned core values were those of Enron, one of the most corrupt corporations of the 21st century.
A quick business history lesson: The above-mentioned core values were those of Enron, one of the most corrupt corporations of the 21st century.

Avoid generic values

Another common pitfall involves companies aligning on overly generic values. ‘Integrity, Communication, Respect, and a Commitment to Excellence’ are strong values objectively speaking, but their meanings are extremely broad and are open to very different interpretations person-to-person.

Another problem with generic values is that there’s no counter to them. Josh Reeves, CEO & Co-Founder of Gusto, talks about the importance of being able to argue both sides of a value. You should build a strong point of view for each interpretation or meaning of the word (or phrase), detail the behaviors that reflect the value, and clearly define the distinction for what the value means to your company—and what it does not. 

“When they're too broad and aspirational,” Anne said, “they don't have that necessary tension, and they ultimately don't help people make good decisions for the business.”

An interesting test here is whether people can identify your company just based on the values. “Be a host,” is easily associated with Airbnb, and that is no accident. CEO Brian Chesky attributes strong values to the company’s global success.

Make them memorable

Values are worthless if people don’t remember them when they’re making day to day decisions. Jake encourages founders to see if their values can pass the “pop song test”. Are they as memorable as the hook of a pop song such that they become stuck in peoples’ heads?

Look at Twilio for inspiration. They built a set of principles called The Twilio Magic to guide how they act, how they make decisions, and how they win. One of the values, ‘Draw the Owl’, is well-known even to many outside the company because it is distinctive and memorable. It states, “Draw the owl. There’s no instruction book; it’s ours to write. Figure it out, ship it, and iterate. Invent the future, but don’t wing it.” The concept is that no one knows how to draw this complicated thing, but the idea is just to get started, even if that’s by simply drawing a couple of circles. This concept could be communicated in a lot of ways, but Twilio’s approach just grabs and sticks with you. 

Twilio’s memorable value of Draw the Owl.
Twilio’s memorable value of Draw the Owl.

Keep values connected to behaviors

The process of clearly defining your core values is critical, but that is just the beginning. In order to make the values come to life, people must know how to act on them. 

Communicate what it means for managers and employees to embed these values into their work, their teams and their goals. And it’s not enough to merely communicate values; these behaviors must be modeled from the top down. The team at the top must lead by example and show what it means to live the values.

To attest to the importance of behavior, Webflow, the no-code website development startup, chose to adopt a list of behaviors rather than values alone. They believe “values mean nothing without action.” 

Webflow chose to adopt core behaviors.
Webflow chose to adopt core behaviors.

Don’t ignore the shadow side

Just as Newton’s Third Law tells us that in physics, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” every value also has a shadow side. It’s important to understand this concept in order to get ahead of how values can be weaponized. You must walk through all of the most extreme scenarios you can envision in order to understand and be prepared to address all unintended consequences.

At Asana, the team has thought through the ‘shadow sides’ of their values. One of Asana’s core values is Clarity; it's an essential part of what they're building and how they behave—everyone knows who does what by when. However, when adopting Clarity, they defined the opposite as ‘Ambiguity’ and discussed how Ambiguity could create anxiety and uncertainty among employees who lacked the Clarity they needed. 

Asana addresses this as an organization by reminding everyone that there will be times where we don't have perfect Clarity, and that is OK. In those rare cases, the other values can step in to help drive decision making.

Values should form the foundation for hiring

Just as values dictate what is permitted and what isn’t within your organization, they should also be used to drive who joins it. Include questions around values-alignment as part of the interview process helps ensure that your team will make the right decisions even without your presence in every interview. 

Although some roles are under extreme pressure to be filled, it is important to never de-prioritize the values-fit in favor of a fast hire. In some cases, we have seen companies have dedicated “values-based interviewers” who are pulled in from different teams and whose only goal is to assess their values-fit, versus hard-skills. In many cases, these interviewers also have veto power on hiring to reinforce how critical values-fit is to the company. And in order to hold every single person on the team to the same standard, the “values-fit interviewers” should be a part of every interview from entry-level through board members.

A word of caution here: Many companies have inadvertently allowed rules around “culture fit” to prevent them from hiring diverse candidates. “Culture fit” candidates may feel and look like every other employee, which can lead to a lack of diversity. In contrast, hiring for values allows for diversity of thought, skills, and background while helping the company align on shared beliefs and practices that set the company on a path for success.

Be bold and opinionated with your values, especially when you’re hiring. You shouldn’t have to convince people about your values—there’s either alignment or not.

Josh Reeves, Gusto CEO & Co-founder

And should continue for performance reviews and informal praise alike

Of course, values should go beyond hiring and form the basis of performance reviews and broader company feedback efforts. Ensure that examples of where people live the values are highlighted in formal reviews. Similarly, if there are instances in which it makes sense to let people go based on extreme or repeated offenses to the values. 

Beyond formal processes, find ways to integrate and celebrate the values into day to day life. You could create Slack emojis that correspond to each value and use them to call out great examples of values-alignment. You could find some physical manifestation of your values and give it out for values-exemplifying behavior.

Emergence's Slack Emoji to signify when someone is Living Our Values.
Emergence's Slack Emoji to signify when someone is Living Our Values.

At Emergence, we host LOV (Living Our Values) sessions during our All Hands meetings where team members can openly share examples of how others have demonstrated Emergence’s core values in their work. It’s a great way to make sure everyone is celebrated across teams.

In Jake’s first job, one value was personified by KISS bobbleheads. When you walked by someone’s desk that had a whole bands’ worth of nodding heads, you knew they were living the values consistently.
In Jake’s first job, one value was personified by KISS bobbleheads. When you walked by someone’s desk that had a whole bands’ worth of nodding heads, you knew they were living the values consistently.

Values set the tone for DEI

Diversity leads to superior outcomes across almost every business dimension. There are numerous ways for promoting diversity and reducing bias in the recruiting process. Some best practices include inclusive job descriptions, hiding names while reviewing resumes, sourcing candidates from a broad range of schools and geographies, maintaining diverse interview slates, and including women and minority employees in the recruiting process so that candidates see potential future colleagues who look like them. But diversity in hiring only goes so far if it doesn’t extend to creating an inclusive employee experience. This is where values come in. 

For diverse employees to feel comfortable, they have to believe they’re in an environment in which they’re set up for success. This extends to everything from employee on-boarding to meeting norms to social get-togethers to benefits that demonstrate a company’s values loud and clear. For example, a value around “All Voices Heard” could encourage full contribution from team members in meetings. 

The strongest companies establish values that include diversity and inclusion in a way that goes far beyond the superficial photo of a diverse employee on a recruiting page; the best companies give these practices teeth and measure leaders against their ability to not only recruit high-caliber diverse talent but also engage and retain it.

Live your values

This may seem obvious, but everyone looks to you as the founder and CEO to demonstrate how to live the company’s values. There's no faster way to destroy the trust and commitment from your team than if you—or anyone across the executive or leadership team—act as if you are exempt. This is especially true in today’s world of social media; every tweet, every post and every picture should be considered through the lens of the company values.

Every word you say, every decision you make, your employees are watching, listening, scrutinizing and trying to make sure that they hold you accountable for living the values.  

A good exercise to start is to write a list of the things or actions you do in a day with your team that exemplify and demonstrate the values. Ask yourself: Are there values you don’t spend enough time on? How might you fill those gaps to better model all your company values? It’s also worth considering framing major company decisions around the values that led to them.

Values need to evolve with your company

Businesses change as they scale. Teams grow larger, and what worked for a startup will no longer be effective in the next stage. Values need to grow with the company. It’s important to check in periodically with employees, especially the “culture keepers,” such as interviewers, to determine whether the values are still memorable and still resonate.

Design your values with intent. Invest in and operationalize them, measure and reflect, and get feedback. The people that are going to be the most honest with you about whether you've come up with a good set of values are your employees, so pay attention to how they're talking about them and how they're celebrating them. This will show you if there are any that no longer feel relevant. Take the time to edit, update, and share how and why your values are evolving.

Asana thinks about investing in their culture the same way they think about investing in their product: designing with intention, building and executing, and measuring and iterating. Their culture evolves just as their product does. 

Values are not meant to be set in stone, so don’t stress about making them perfect. Just start by drawing the owl.

                                             ____________


We’re passionate about this topic and would love to hear from others who are as well. Please share with us other things that have worked well, missteps to avoid, and great examples of companies living their values. Find us at @anneraimondi + @jakesaper.

Watch Anne and Jake discuss Values on stage at our Emergence Summit.

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