Getting to the Core of Company Values


It’s Sunday night. Do you know where your employees are?

Well, not physically. They’re likely watching Game of Thrones, still recovering from the past two days, and questioning why they did those things, to begin with. (Though, to be fair, they seemed like good ideas at the time.)

The real question is, where is their collective mind? Are they raring to get back to work? Are they experiencing a melancholy, longing for another day off? Or are they maybe wrestling with the gut-wrenching reality that another work week begins in just another 12 hours? Even worse, are you? Whatever your staff is feeling, it’s possible that much of their collective mindset stems from your company’s core values or, more specifically, its lack thereof.  stellapop-click-to-tweet.png

More Than Pizza & Ping-Pong

But here’s the thing: To begin with, many companies suffer from a lack of understanding of what core values actually are. Core values do not come in pizza boxes, as we ignore Laura in accounting’s gluten allergy every second Friday of the month, or on the ping-pong table next to the supply closet. Nor do they come in the form of that one supervisor, sneaking Jell-O shots into the office holiday party for a small group of “cool” employees. (“But, seriously, guys. Don’t tell anyone these have peach Schnapps in them. Judith in HR would kill me.”) These are, at best, perks, and at worst, grounds for finding a new supervisor. They have nothing to do with the operation’s values.

So, let’s break it down. If not pizza, ping-pong, or peach Schnapps, what are company values? Well, one simple (if not clinical) way to define them is a collection of ideas and guidelines that establish a company’s culture as well as drive its employees to daily success. For the majority of today’s startups, everything begins with those ideas and goals. It’s the cultural flag, planted in the carpet.

To determine its company’s core values, the founders of the startup Buffer didn’t just draw up a list and decree, “These are our core values!!” as if relayed by a burning bush. They distributed a simple questionnaire to its staff. Each employee was asked what they considered to be their three biggest values in the workplace. No parameters, just an empty canvas. Their responses proved to be enlightening and served as the compass that got the organization’s culture and values where they are today.

Growing Pains

But as Buffer discovered, when establishing values, things get painful. They struggled with their first experiences of letting staff members go. During the process, the organization went from 12 to 8 people. And any time a company, no matter how large or how small, loses 1/3 of its staff, it’s significant. But that’s the deal: change, even when it’s for the betterment of the employees, is hard. And the bigger, more established the company, the harder it’s going to be. You’re not turning on a dime; you’re changing course on your ship.

Actions speak louder than whiteboards. You have to be able to deliver on the ideas. There’s no point in aiming for the peak of Everest when you know you only have the means to make it to the top of Blueberry Hill. Instead, work towards that peak. Your values have to be something that everyone has a hand in every day, making hiring the most critical part in upholding those values. Finding the talent that fits the culture is why companies grow and, whether through resignation or termination, shrink in the process.

Regardless, when we’re talking about embracing core values, startups are the template. (Hence, “startup culture”.)And “template” doesn’t mean Core-Values-By-Numbers. In fact, just the opposite. Your company has to own its values.

Probably the most well-known example comes from Zappos. In his book Delivering Happiness, Tony Hsieh delves into the ten core values that drive the company:

1. Deliver WOW through service

2. Embrace and drive change

3. Create fun and a little weirdness

4. Be adventurous, creative and open-minded

5. Pursue growth and learning

6. Build open and honest relationships with communication

7. Build a positive team and family spirit

8. Do more with less

9. Be passionate and determined

10. Be humble

He pretty much nailed it, right? But it’s worth noting that just because these ten nuggets work for Zappos, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll fit your organization. He nailed it for his company and its staff. That’s why it’s critical to take the time to figure out where your goals lie and how you want to get there.

Your Ball of Clay

Regardless, there are certain things that are musts for any organization that is genuinely looking to establish a healthy culture, and they don’t fall under the category of “Rocket Science”. Hsieh has said, “Chase the vision, not the money.” In other words, make your company a place in which people enjoy working and the rest will follow.

A lot comes from simple communication and transparency. Make your goal a collective goal by explaining to your staff what the company is doing and why it’s doing it. Not only does it increase efficiency but it also sends the message that you’re a team, not a collection of employees. And for some people, such communication speaks volumes.

In the end, it’s your ball of clay. You have the tools in both your vision and your employees to mold your company into a place where people want to be their best. As Brad Feld at Foundry Group will tell you, “You can’t motivate people; you can only create a context in which people are motivated.”

But pizza helps.

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