Most teams stop short in creating their company culture. Here’s what to watch out for and what to do.
I’ll never forget that feeling of relief when our leadership team finally agreed upon our company core values.
We’d spent months working through the process. We’d interviewed people on the team. Explored. Debated things to a fault. And of course wordsmithed until we found the best way to articulate what mattered most to us.
We arrived at five statements of truth - about us and about the company we wanted to build.
I even remember our lead designer eager to scramble back to his desk to start mocking up posters for the big unveil. We were excited about the values, but maybe more excited to have the project done so we could get back to the “real” work. At the time we were in the midst of our first significant hiring spree (the impetus for the culture work in the first place) and there was a lot to do. Interestingly though, that “lot to do” didn’t seem to entail anymore culture work.
Somehow the act of creating posters seemed the finish line. And here they are…
I’ve actually seen this exact same thing play out at other companies too. Values defined and posters printed (maybe a shirt too). Then it’s back to work.
But values on paper are just propaganda if they aren’t lived out.
A Revolving Door of Talent
Stopping your culture efforts as soon as you’ve designed your culture code creates risk around building your team. Any savvy interviewer can spin well-written values to sound great to a candidate. Hell, I did this at my company. I wasn’t trying to deceive anyone. I really did believe in our company values but I naively believed that we were living those values out.
Candidates light up hearing these bold statements about what’s important to you. It sounds like a great place to work. In fact, you might be able to convince some great people to join your team. But if your values aren’t alive, then once they join they’ll begin to smell the bullshit. If the actual experience of work doesn’t back up the values that you’ve articulated then you’ve missed the entire point. You risk creating a revolving door of talent. Exceptional people will join, and exceptional people will leave.
Articulating your company values helps attract talent. Bringing those values to life makes them want to stay.
Embedding Your Values in the Work
Your core values are the blueprint for building culture. It’s the guide, but it isn’t the building. With your values in hand, the real work starts.
Your aim now is to embed your values into the day-to-day work. If your values are what matter most, then they must be unavoidable.
The landscape for this is vast, so I’ll share some of the most common and also often missed places to consider. When possible I’ll include favorite examples of how scaling teams have done things. Notice that for each, a choice was made to deliberately embed the value into the work. This doesn’t happen by chance, culture is build by design.
If you’re currently growing your team, then hiring is the first place to ensure you’ve embedded your culture. It helps attract the right people, makes it easy to discern who is a good fit, and increases your ability to close the best talent. More than anything else, your hiring process needs to drive to a clear answer on: Does this person naturally live our values?
Buffer is one of my favorite examples of this. Their first stated value is "Default to transparency" and even before you consider entering their hiring process you get a full peek into the company and how they hire. You can calculate what your salary would be, see others’ salaries, see how diverse the team is, even company revenue is public.
And all of that is linked in the footer from the Buffer homepage.
The result: only someone who values transparency would even consider applying to Buffer. Their commitment to transparency also led them to publish a glimpse into their entire hiring process.
Once you’ve hired the right person, your onboarding is where they are introduced to your culture. Onboarding done well, creates clarity and helps people contribute faster.
Your onboarding experience should not only be a delightful welcome to the team, but also reinforce the norms of how you work together. Onboarding’s primary function is to create meaningful encounters with your culture; so much so that a new person can’t help but feel a part of the team. There are all sorts of ways that your values can come to life here.
Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, shares one of the simplest ways to bring your values to the forefront in onboarding:
When new employees join the company, they are required to sign a document stating that they have read the core values document and understand that living up to the core values is part of their job expectation.
Zappos also offers people money to quit during onboarding. They have a value of "Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit" and decided it better to pay someone to leave than have someone less than positive, not bought in on being part of the family.
Rituals That Create Connection
Creating rituals around when and how people gather has been one of the highest leverage methods I’ve seen for building culture. These create shared experiences, build relationships, and add deeper meaning to your values.
Consider the meetings both big (all-hands meetings, annual retreats) and small (one-on-ones, team meetings) that occur. How can you embed rituals that connect the entire group around your values?
Evolution, a company I’m a partner at, has an explicit value around the importance of relationships and so every meeting begins with a personal check-in that invites you to share how you are right now in this moment. It creates connection, builds relationships, and reinforces what matters most to us.
Some companies celebrate milestones with cupcakes for launches. I’ve seen Founder AMAs that create more openness in the organization.
It’s likely that you already have some of these rituals happening in your organization and if so, see if you can dial them up to be more noticeable, more impactful. And also feel free to experiment with other rituals that align with your values.
The Tools You Use
Your team interacts with a variety of tools on a day-to-day basis making them high frequency touchpoints that are often underutilized for culture building. Consider the setup, usage, even naming of tools as an easy area to embed your values.
I helped one team setup Slack channels for each of their core valuesWe then used the Slack Reaji Channeler to assign an emoji to each of the culture channels so anyone could in a click route other Slack conversations into the value channels. Not only do they have a growing catalog of stories and moments where their values were lived out, but also employees are regularly watching for moments when their values are in action.
What You Manage Towards
One of the biggest pitfalls in culture building is that culture efforts get treated as separate from the real work. Is culture alive in your strategy? Is building your culture one of your key objectives?
I’ve seen teams make culture a core part of their strategic plan and others who don’t.
Asana’s core value “Reject false tradeoffs” is used intentionally in their strategic planning to “reject the notion that strong business results and a thriving culture are mutually exclusive”
Your Public Brand
Embedding culture isn’t just an internal to the company exercise either, but also looking to how we might embed our values in the ways that we engage our customers.
Craig Wilson, former marketing leader at Patagonia, makes a strong bottom-line business case for the importance of doing exactly this:
The path to long-term, sustainable loyalty is based on an unspoken agreement: You believe what I believe and I believe what you believe. Now we can do business from a place of trust and inspiration.
It’s no surprise then that any interaction with Patagonia brings you in contact with their value of sustainability. Go on their website, open their catalog, visit a store...all of it conveys how much the planet matters to them. It’s core to their strategy and brand.
Alongside Buffer’s value of "Default to transparency" they also have a value to “Communicate with clarity.” So it’s no surprise then that they make their entire product roadmap public. If you’re a customer or considering becoming one you know exactly what you’re going to get today and in the coming future.
Brands like these we trust more and want to buy from more. Not only because we share their values but because we admire standing for something.
Most teams measure performance as nothing more than the ability to drive business results. But this misses the big picture. Building culture requires that each individual get parallel feedback on how they go about getting the results. Are we performing
Including conversations around your values in formal performance discussions (i.e. annual reviews) is a starting point. But also look for ways to enable feedback throughout the organization so these conversations aren’t only between manager and reports.
BrainJolt Media, for example, uses HeyTaco - a Slack integration - to foster in-the-moment feedback when team members are exhibiting their core values. The tool has caught on so much that it’s spawned an entire ‘taco economy’ inside the agency for trading in earned tacos for rewards.
Identify & Commit to Specific Behaviors
Perhaps the most important way to embed your values is in your own behavior. Even with your values written down, actions will always speak louder than words. For the leaders of the company, the stakes are high here. When leadership undermines the values the validity and importance of them is cast into doubt.
Committed leadership teams see this as an opportunity to commit to specific behaviors that you’ll exhibit as you guide the organization.
One executive team that I worked with identified “Show Up With Curiosity” as their value that while true felt most edgy for them to live out. As a group they explored specific behaviors that they could practice together and an agreed upon way to give each other feedback to improve. It was a bold commitment that pushed them to embed their values into an increasing number of conversations and moments.
The process of embedding your values into the day to day is the real work of building a great company culture. Start with defining your values then bring them to life in the work.
Culture building is never done, but don’t risk leaving it half-done.