When I see cookie-cutter company values like "sincere", "bold", "respectful", "hard-working", "teamwork" my eyes roll. Sorry, they just do.
Yeah sure those are great values to have but what do they actually mean?
And more importantly, do people working for companies who advertise those values follow them in their' daily work?
Do they even know what those mean, or remember them?
But say they do. Let's get specific.
- Does "bold" mean I should take more risks? What happens if my ideas fail?
- Does "teamwork" mean we value collaboration over individual contribution? Should I help people succeed rather than focus on my personal KPIs?
- Do we fire Dave from sales for saying to clients that feature X will come in Q1 when everyone in the company knows it will happen in Q4 or never?
I think most of the time core company values live comfortably inside of a slide deck and a confluence wiki page where they look so nice and perfect and don't have to answer those hard questions.
Cause if you think about it if we were to actually enforce those values we would have to make uncomfortable decisions sometimes.
But that is exactly why company values can be great.
They can be this line in the sand that we will not cross, they can be principles that guide our daily micro-decisions.
They can help us get more people we want to work with on our team.
Ok, but what exactly are core company values.
What are core company values?
Core company values are a set of principles, rules that guide all actions done by everyone in the company at any time.
They are the line in the sand that you don't cross even in the darkest of times.
They shape your company culture, they make your company your company.
They "define the bus".
In "Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't" James Collins says that one of the biggest differences between good and great companies is that before they define WHAT needs to be done (vision, plans, actions) they define WHO needs to join the team (right people).
According to his research, it is better to fill the bus with the right people first and then figure out the direction rather than figure out the direction and then find people to help you get there.
But if you don't know where you are going how do you know who are the "right people" for your company?
Core company values.
Ok, got it. But if "sincere", "bold" and "teamwork" are bad company values what are the good ones?
What are good core company values?
There are some great pointers to company values in this HBR article and this great blog post from Biteable.
Combining the info from those articles and some other things I've read, good company values are:
- Aggressively authentic
- Not about team consensus
- Only a few of them
Let's go over them one by one.
They don't include common values.
There are values that I think most if not all companies share like "sincere" or "respectful".
Listing them as core values just clutters the message of how is your culture different.
So drop the obvious stuff and focus on things that actually define your company. Things that define a crowd of people you want to work with.
They are aggressively authentic.
What are the things that make you, you?
Look inside your company, talk to the CEO, core team members, founders, employees that are with the company the longest, and figure out what is special about your culture.
Be authentic, don't try to please everyone, and make values sound nice.
Core values are not about consensus, they are about figuring out the core principles that guide all your company actions.
The more authentic you are in choosing and enforcing core values that you care about the more people will join the company who share those values that you care about.
So be aggressive about them, to make it clear that you care.
They are actionable.
There is no point in having values that people don't know how to use in daily activities.
Instead of "Teamwork" use "Make your team successful, even if it means you don't get your stuff done".
Instead of "Bold" use "Take risks when you believe in something".
Don't use abstract words when you can show concrete examples to explain things.
It makes your message easier to understand, share and enforce.
There are other "Made to stick" storytelling principles you may want to use but concreteness is definitely one of them.
You have only a few of them
Pick three to five values, not more.
You want them to be memorable. You want every person in your company to know them.
So make it crystal clear what do you really care about.
Obviously, more things could have made the list, sure.
But it is your job to pick the ones who are the line in the sand.
They are not about the team consensus
And if you choose only a few of them, how do you choose which ones?
How do you make your team agree on which 3-5 core values are important?
The answer is you don't.
Core values are not about consensus.
There will always be people who disagree or wouldn't choose something.
It is important to listen to everybody when choosing your values but make peace with the fact that you will not please everybody.
It is ok.
What is important, however, is to get the CEO on board.
If CEO doesn't feel those values they are dead. They may stay for a month or a year but nobody would make them a reality.
So make sure that your CEO is behind this all the way. You need it because good core values...
They are enforced
If you have great values but nobody follows them they are not great values.
If you create values that your CEO doesn't believe in she will not put pressure on management to enforce them.
Hell, she would even act against core values herself.
And that is the beginning of the end of core values IMHO.
So make sure your company (and CEO specifically) is ready to enforce those values.
Otherwise don't bother working on them and just copy-paste some cookie-cutter fluff from the internet.
But when you do have that buy-in you can get your company to live the values and grow with those values.
And that could be really powerful.
Ok, now that you know what some good core values are let's take a look at real-life examples.
Examples of good core company values
Let's look into some developer-focused companies first.
- Grit: We thrive outside of our comfort zone, pushing ourselves to go ever further. We think long-term and constantly strive to be better, even if things don’t always go as expected.
- Trust: We trust each other just as we trust our users. We earn that trust by listening to each other, following through with our commitments and keeping our words. We excercice transparency within the company, our customers and our community
- Care: We want the best for our customers, community & colleagues. We go above and beyond to make sure they are happy. We have each other’s backs and help one another succeed.
- Candor: We are open and honest. We give each other praise and cristicism because we want to challenge each other and help one another grow.
- Humility: We want our teammates to succeed as much as we do ourselves. We believe each team member is as important as the other and we approach each new challenge knowing that we may not have all the answers.
- Collaboration: To achieve results, team members must work together effectively. At GitLab, helping others is a priority, even when it is not immediately related to the goals that you are trying to achieve.
- Results: We do what we promised to each other, customers, users, and investors.
- Efficiency: Working efficiently on the right things enables us to make fast progress, which makes our work more fulfilling.
- Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging: Diversity, inclusion and belonging are fundamental to the success of GitLab. We aim to make a significant impact in our efforts to foster an environment where everyone can thrive.
- Iteration: We do the smallest thing possible and get it out as quickly as possible.
- Transparency: Be open about as many things as possible. By making information public, we can reduce the threshold to contribution and make collaboration easier. Use public issue trackers, projects, and repositories when possible.
- Be an owner: Owners know their business, embracing the good news and the bad. Owners sweat the details and “pick up the trash.” Owners think long term, and spend money wisely.
- Empower others: We believe that unleashing human potential — both inside and outside our company — is the key to our success. Be humble and realize it’s not just about us. Invest in each other.
- No shenanigans: Always act in an honest, direct, and transparent way.
- Wear the customer’s shoes: Spend the time to deeply understand customers, and solve problems from their perspective. Earn trust through every interaction.
- Write it down: Our business is complex, so take the time to express yourself in prose — for your sake, and for the folks with whom you’re collaborating.
- Ruthlessly prioritize: Prioritization helps break down complex problems, and provides clarity in the face of uncertainty. Decisions are progress, so make decisions with available information and keep learning.
- Be bold: We’re driven by a hunger to build a meaningful and impactful company. Embrace crazy ideas and remember, every big idea starts small.
- Be inclusive: To achieve our goals, we need a diverse set of voices in the room. Build diverse teams, and seek out unique points of view.
- 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.
- Don’t settle: Expect the best from yourself and others, because there’s no feeling greater than being proud of our work. Hire the best people for every role.
- Inclusive, empathetic, and respectful
- Open and transparent
- Ambitious and impact-driven
- Quick and continuous
- Aligned, empowered, and accountable
- Think Big, Go Far
- Make It Matter
- Build Together
- Embrace the Power of Differences
- Be Intellectually Honest
- Own What You Do
And here are some great examples outside of developer-focused companies:
- Put our customers at the heart of everything: Our top priority is delivering value to the people that rely on Hotjar to solve their day-to-day challenges.
- Be bold and move fast: We pursue big goals by prioritizing brilliantly, taking quick decisions, and delivering incremental change.
- Work with respect: We are honest, tolerant, and inclusive. And we measure success not by profits alone, but by contributions to all stakeholders.
- Build trust with transparency: We communicate with our team, customers, users, and end-users in a clear, timely, and open way.
- Challenge ourselves to grow: We celebrate results and we are always thinking about ways to grow and improve.
- We’re optimistic and positive
- We think big and start small
- We obsess about our customers’ success
- We go further together
- We’re confident, yet humble
- We make every day count
- Long-Term Company Thinking: Our mission is to make business more human. This isn’t a mission that can be accomplished in a few years ; it’s something we’ll work on for many decades to come, which is why we care so much about long-term thinking and decision-making. Decisions and efforts that prioritize the long-term success of our company have an outsized impact on our individual careers, our culture, the financial health of our business, and ultimately our ability to achieve our mission.
- Creativity: As a product leadership company, our customers rely on us to look at problems differently and solve them in ways that they had never conceived. Likewise, our brand and end-to-end customer experience are built on serving customers in creative and delightful ways.
- Presentation: Product leadership demands an aspirational brand, and we take pride in holding ourselves to a high aesthetic standard. The experience of our customers is heightened by our relentless attention to detail: the typefaces we use on our website, the subtle animations in our products, the tone we use in our emails, and the focus we put on creating a remarkable customer experience.
- Simplicity: We strive for simplicity in all things: our product, our marketing, our processes, our business model, and our office space. It’s easy to layer on complexity, but achieving simplicity requires ruthless editing. The result is solutions that are beautiful in their efficiency and clarity, easier to understand wholly, easier to translate to different situations and scales, and easier to change later.
How to create your company core values
This how-to is based on a great article from Hotjar about their story of creating core values.
I just adjusted and extended some steps to make it more actionable for me.
Step 1: Get the CEO behind it
The first thing is first.
Get your CEO behind this.
The core values need to be enforced.
The enforcement must come from the top.
The only way to do it is to make the CEO the ultimate gatekeeper of your company values.
So talk to her, keep her in the loop at every stage, and get her 100% buy-in.
Step 2: Survey all employees
Send out an anonymous survey to all employees asking them to list values that describe your company.
I think it is good to combine the current state with the future company aspiration.
Looking into some example questions from quantumworkplace and buffer I got this list:
- What draws you to this organization?
- What makes our workplace culture unique?
- What do we do better than anybody else?
- What should we do better than anybody else?
- What motivates you to do your best work (outside of money)?
- What are the values that we should always put above money?
- How would you describe our company culture and values today (list at least 3 values)?
- Which company values should we see more off in the future (list at least 3 values)?
Step 3: Talk to the core team (founders + key employees)
The core team is what seeds the values in the company.
Those could be founders, employees who have been there from the beginning, or other folks on your team that you think should be asked what they value.
Talk to them one on one and dive deep. Ask them to:
- Share their personal values
- Explain what do they like about working at this company
- Give an opinion about current values if you have them
- Elaborate on the questions from the survey above
- Give an opinion about the most common answers to the survey above
- Suggest what else is important
Step 4: Combine all input into a long list of value candidates
Now that you have all of the input data from the core team and all employees put it all together.
- Cluster similar values into themes
- Remove the obvious ones
- Communicate themes in an easy to understand and actionable way
- Look for themes that are authentic and unique to your company
- See which themes corresponded to your core team and which to the rest of the company
The wording doesn't have to be great just yet, just good enough to communicate it clearly.
Step 5: Vote on the value candidates
Put your themes up for a vote.
Communicate that it is to gather insights not to choose which values you will choose in the end.
A good way to do it is to give everyone 10 fake dollars to invest in the value themes they care about.
Step 6: Shortlist value candidates with the core team
Now that you have the themes and results of the voting talk about it with your core team.
This time do it in a group setting.
You want a debate.
You want to see people fight for things they care about.
To see them argue why it is more important than other things.
See what people feel is obviously in and what is obviously out.
At the end you are choosing three to five values so some important things will be out.
Step 7: Present the final choice to the CEO
Think about what happened during the discussion and choose your final values.
You can already start working on the messaging if you feel it could affect the CEO's decision.
Present it to the CEO and make sure that he is behind those values 100%.
Step 8: Clean up messaging
Once you have your 3-5 values, and the CEO gave her blessing work on the messaging.
Make it Simple, Concrete, Authentic, Actionable. "Made to stick" storytelling principles could help.
Step 9: Figure out a plan to enforce these values
Remember that good core company values are enforced. They have to become reality to make any difference for your company.
So ask yourself a few questions:
- How will the values be embedded in company culture?
- How will you reward people for following company values?
- How will you punish people who don't follow company values?
A good practice is to have a "Company values" slack channel where stories are shared that reinforce the values.
You can embed values in employee evaluation.
You definitely should have values listed in a job description, career page, and screen for them during interviews.
Step 10: Present to the entire company
Create a presentation explaining:
- Which values you chose
- Why and how you chose them
- How will these values be enforced, celebrated, and rewarded
Make sure it is the CEO who presents it or if not, at the very least she gives a short "I am 100% behind it" message during the presentation.
The message has to be clear that those are values that will be enforced and that they are coming from the very top.
What is next?
Now that you've learned what are the good core company values and how to create them go ahead and do it!