How to Use Your Company’s Values

How to Use Your Company’s Values

This is an actual letter I sent to a pair of founders giving them a roadmap for tapping into the potential of their newly articulated company values.  When I sent this, we had just completed a three month effort defining the essence of who they are by solidifying their core values. It felt worth sharing publicly in case others might have their values created but not quite taken the next (and necessary) step

G + G,

Congrats on defining your values.

I honor you both for your commitment to building more than just another company, more than just another place for people to work. Few leaders take the time to look inward and clarify what matters most by defining their values. Even fewer invite their team into the process too. Thank you for being leaders who pursue meaning.

I’ve also seen many startups - my own included - who just after defining their values, don’t take the next (and necessary) step: Putting the values into action.

And so, I wanted to share some guidance on next steps colored by a few cautionary tales and lessons learned from doing this for a while now.

What Usually Happens At This Point

Having taken the time to define their values, most teams do some sort of reveal to the team.

An all-hands meeting. Values printed on posters. Maybe some nice t-shirts too. Sprinkle in a few Slack messages and then...everyone gets back to work.

The words had meaning for a moment. Then the meaning fades as the values aren’t kept alive in both conversation and in action.

There’s a downside risk here that’s worth calling out. Values written down but not lived out will become evidence for skepticism (e.g. Is this really a company that stands for what it believes in?). I think this risk is tiny today with the small team you have but becomes more real as the team scales.

The real missed opportunity though is on the upside.

Your values are packed with potential. Potential to attract and retain world-class talent. Potential to bring the very best out of each and every employee. Potential to truly hold onto the dream that I know you have for your company. And the potential to make the whole journey WAY easier and more fun for yourselves as founders.

Realizing this potential comes through two efforts that I call prototyping and embedding.

The Prototyping Mindset

You’ve already put in great work, created something meaningful. Now you want to find out if your values really work - for you, for your team, for the company -  in real life. We have a strong hunch here from all of the interviews and discussions we’ve had. And there’s more to learn.

Prototyping’s goal is to create a feedback loop around your values. Right now the simplest feedback to gather is from the team. Start there.

Within the next month, I suggest getting everyone together to discuss some or all of the questions below. Working through these you’ll surface a richer set of feedback plus drive a deeper sense of ownership within the team.

  • What one or two values most stand out to you? - Intentionally open-ended to surface all sorts of perspectives on your values. Some people will identify the values that they most appreciate. Others will identify those that feel least clear. Others might point out a value that is confusing them and they just can’t get past it. All of it is useful to hear.
  • Which value feels most energizing to you? Least? - Ideally they all have a positive charge to them, but take note on any that seem to have a consensus of being more of a downer. Dig deeper on those to understand why.
  • What value is least clear to you? - It’s also worth being direct on which values aren’t entirely clear. You want everything easily understood by everyone.
  • Which value is most alive today in our work? Which is least alive? - Helps move the conversation toward applying the values to real actions.

Use that last question to set up the next feedback loop. As a group, pick one of the values that’s least alive and commit as a group to practice a behavior aligned with that value for the next 2-4 weeks. It can be helpful here to decide as a group how you’ll give each other feedback during the practice also. Reconvene afterwards to discuss what was learned.

Embedding Your Values in the Work

The other way to put your values into action is by embedding them into the work. There’s all sorts of ways to do this, but here are the key areas to focus in on:

  • Hiring: How might we use our values to be clearer about who is (and isn’t) a fit here?
  • Onboarding: How do we make encounters with our values unavoidable during someone’s first day? First week? First month?
  • How You Manage & Give Feedback: How might we give one another feedback on how we’re individually doing at living our values?
  • Communication: When and how does information get shared? What new or existing Slack channels might best help us live our values? How often, when, and why does the entire company gather? What happens at these gatherings?

Rituals that Create Connection: What rituals do we have that we might emphasize more or differently? Any rituals we might adopt?

  • Examples: Are there ways we might start or end meetings? How do we say goodbye to someone on their last day at the company? How do we craft strategy and plan? How do we share learnings/failures/milestones?

There’s all sorts of places to consider, but keep it simple.There will be plenty of low hanging fruit to go after.

It’s worth considering inviting some or all of the team into the embedding process. When this happens I’ve seen better ideas surface, you get more buy-in, and it’s easier for you because you don’t need to orchestrate it all.

You can also assign small working teams to individual values to give more time for ideas to surface. This type of ownership throughout the team is a meta way of getting values in action. It’ll infuse deeper meaning into them more quickly.

The Conversation is What Matters Most

Ok, last thing here and this is important. The key to building a vibrant, iconic culture is the conversation. You want to be talking about how you’re effectively living your values. Talking about where you’re coming up short. These conversations are what most drives the alignment to your values. More than anything else, this is what keeps them alive.

Some teams naturally maintain dialog on culture. Most don’t.

So it’s worth considering committing to a monthly or at least quarterly conversation with all (or a subset) of the team. Keep hold of a regular space to step away from the “what” of work to talk about the “how” and then make any adjustments as needed from there.

The goal isn’t perfection with any of this. The goal is to work and live life in a more meaningful, more impactful way. Let your values be the guide.

I hope this is helpful as a roadmap from here. If I can be of service with anything, I’m here.