How to Define Your Company’s Values

In my previous post, I mentioned that defining your company’s values is one of the most important things you can do to build a strong culture. You could think of the values as the DNA of your company’s culture, or the blueprints if you prefer architectural references to biological ones. Defining your values helps create the foundation from which the culture can be built in a clear, intentional way.  Without clearly defined values, people will have different ideas about what the culture of the company is supposed to be, and what’s expected of them. Key decisions from hiring to budgeting to setting strategic direction will be made without the rudder of values ensuring alignment amongst the decisions, and clarity around how they’re being made.

Without this alignment and clarity, meetings and decision-making processes will likely take a long time, with, each stakeholder jockeying for the decisions and outcomes that best suit their own interests or even if everyone is trying to put the ‘we’ ahead of the ‘me’, folks will have different ideas about what that means. There will be a lot of talking ‘at’ each other, and team members may start to view the team as inherently dysfunctional.  Lack of underlying agreement on values is often at the heart of common team dysfunction ‘symptoms’ such as frustrating arguments, endless disagreements and inefficient meetings.  That doesn’t mean that once you’ve clarified your values, there will be no conflict. Clarifying values simply allows for ‘cleaner’, healthier conflict in which the decision criteria and boundaries are clear, and team members are able to engage in productive debate about which solutions best reflect the agreed-upon values.

A defined set of values will serve as the basis for ‘institutionalizing the culture’; putting in just the right amount of structure at the appropriate time to ensure the culture you intend scales as the company grows.  These values, and the set of key associated behaviors that embody them in your company, can be used as the basis for interview questions, incorporated in performance reviews that determine compensation and promotion, and invoked to make key strategic and tactical decisions.

So, here are the key steps to define your company’s values (this represents what I view to be an ideal process, but you are of course free to pick and choose ideas, or modify the process in a way that best fits your team and circumstances):

1. Commit to honoring whatever values you and your team come up with.

Commitment to operating from an agreed-upon set of shared values is the first and most important step to creating a strong culture. If you’re unwilling to do step 1., it’s better not to embark on this process. Defining a set of values and then not living up to them will create cynicism and resignation amongst your team, and you will be worse off than if you never started down this path. If you’re not willing or capable of making the hard, risky choices you’ll need to make, and being the kind of leader you need to be, to honor the values you and your team define for your company, I strongly recommend that you do not attempt to define your values with your team.

2. Gather a cross-section of team members from across your company to serve as the culture-defining group.

If your company has 30 or fewer employees, you may want to include everyone.  If your company has more than 30 people, ensure you include someone from all groups, divisions and levels. It’s ideal to include team members who you know are well-respected amongst their peers, and who you think embody the best in your company.  It should be viewed as an honor to be part of this culture-defining group. The key executives in the company, especially the CEO, must be a part of this group.

3. Create a smaller culture-defining task force, typically a subset of the larger culture-defining group, whose job it will be to group, consolidate and wordsmith the values, definitions and behaviors suggested by the larger group.

It’s important to have this group assembled prior to your initial meeting, because these will be the people who will be listening and taking notes with an eye toward having to write up and synthesize the group’s thoughts. They are often the ones who will be asking clarifying questions, and forcing people to refine their suggestions. This group (or if your team is small enough, individual) could also include a consultant or facilitator (I am often asked to lead this group as part of a broader culture development project), or someone from your marketing or branding firm who is particularly adept at word-smithing and communications. Someone from this group will likely play the role of meeting facilitator and/or scribe at the whiteboard. In an ideal situation, you will have a meeting facilitator and a whiteboard scribe. While the CEO may be part of this group, she or he should not serve as either meeting facilitator or whiteboard scribe, since it’s important that the CEO be able to fully participate in, and not dominate, the discussion.

4. Have an initial meeting with the larger culture-defining group with the goal of coming up with a DRAFT list of possible company values, as well as a  working definition and a few key observable behaviors for each value.

Here are four questions to guide the meeting discussion:

  • What do you think the company’s values should be, and how do they serve the vision/mission of the company?
  • Who are the team members you most respect and admire, what values do those individuals embody and what behaviors best exhibit those values?
  • What do you look for in a potential hire that you’ll have to work directly with?
  • What are your own personal values? (see my previous post on How to Discover Your Core Values)

You may want to ask the group members to do some pre-work – including thinking about and writing down answers to these questions prior to the meeting. Many groups will then work sequentially through the process of listing and prioritizing the values, defining them, and coming up with key behaviors for each. It can be even more productive to have a meeting in which you simultaneously discuss all three (values, definitions, behaviors) and focus on ensuring everyone fully understands what is intended by each suggestion, rather than on coming up with a neat, clean list of words or phrases. The discussion is as much about creating a shared framework of understanding, as it is about getting just the right list of words on the board.

The best way to conduct this conversation is to encourage storytelling based on the four questions listed above (whether or not team members considered the questions prior to the meeting).  For example, if someone suggests that they think one of the company’s value should be ‘collaboration’, ask them to share a story about a time when a team they were a part of or observed was particularly collaborative, and how they thought that contributed to the team’s objectives.  You can either go through the questions one at a time, or pose all four, and let people contribute ideas based on whichever questions most resonate with them. Expect this to be a somewhat messy process, with a lot of overlapping ideas. At this stage, the goal is to get ‘all brains on the table’ and ensure everyone has a chance to contribute their thoughts and ideas about the company’s values. You may want to use a structured process at the beginning of the meeting, such as going around the room and having each person contribute one value and story,  or breaking up into smaller groups, to encourage full participation.

Importantly, the goal of this initial meeting is to get all the ideas and suggestions fully flushed out, not to decide on what the company’s values will be.  However, in order to make the meeting most effective, it should be made clear to everyone at the beginning of this meeting (if not before) what process and decision rules will be used to ultimately prioritize and select the company’s values.  A common process is to have all team members to vote on the values, and then the CEO or a small group of executives will make the final decision, incorporating the team members’ views in their decision. Again, it’s crucial that all team members understand the final decision rule so they don’t make incorrect assumptions about how they’re input will be used. For example, if some team members assume a democratic process in which the values with the most votes are automatically chosen, they will be very surprised, and perhaps event resentful, if in the end different values are selected by the executive team. A clear decision rule and transparent, inclusive process will help ensure people are committed to the values once they are finalized.

5. Ask the smaller culture-defining task force to group, consolidate and wordsmith the values, definitions and behaviors suggested by the larger group into a working draft of possible company values.

Following the meeting or during a break in the meeting, the culture-defining task force should get to work grouping similar ideas and consolidating values/behaviors that capture in essence the same notion.  They should take the group’s suggestions for definitions of each value and refine them to something they believe is clear and accurately captures the intention of the group, and created a consolidated list of 3 – 5 key observable behaviors that embody each value.  The task force will also identify gaps, in terms of values or behaviors that were not clearly defined.

6. Resume (or hold another) meeting with the larger culture-defining group to review the working draft, prioritize values and begin to create a bridge to holding each other accountable for the values.

The purpose of this meeting (or this phase of the meeting) is for the group to:

  • review the consolidated draft of the values, value definitions and behaviors to ensure that everyone understands what’s written and that it accurately reflects the group’s intentions.
  • fill in any gaps that the culture-defining task force identified (i.e., a value that did not get defined, or a value with not enough behaviors listed)
  • get the group member’s input on which values are most important (this is often done through ‘dot voting’, where meeting attendees are given a certain number of Post-It notes or sticky dots, and place them on the whiteboard or flip chart next to the values they believe are most important.)
  • discuss what happens when someone violates one of the values
  • explore ways to hold each other accountable to the values

7. The culture-defining task force creates an updated draft of the values, definitions and behaviors.

8. The company’s CEO (and possibly executive team) reviews, selects the values and approves the updated draft.

Before the draft is presented to the rest of the company, the CEO (and sometimes the entire executive team) must approve it to ensure that they are willing to commit to operating the company in accordance with the values listed. The executive team may choose the values with the most votes or use their own judgement to make a final selection on the company’s values based on the culture-defining group’s input.

9. Hold focus groups or interviews with team members who were NOT part of the larger culture-defining group to ensure the draft is clear and understandable.

At this point, you’re almost done. But since this blueprint is going to form the basis of your culture from this day forward, you want to make sure it achieves its primary objective of creating clear expectations and decision criteria. Simply show the interviewees each of the values/definitions/behavior sets, and ask them: ‘What does this mean to you?’   If they can’t answer, or their answer conveys something other than what was intended, continue to refine the wording until everyone gives essentially the same answer, and that answer captures the intention of the value.

10. Communicate (and communicate and communicate) the values and observable behaviors to all stakeholders.

Begin communicating the values and behaviors to all team members. This blueprint needs to come alive in your company, so don’t think that sending it out once in an email is going to cut it. You may want to do a launch event, or a series of small group meetings to communicate the outcome of the values-defining process, discuss what it means for team members and answer any questions. You will most likely want to communicate the values to other key stakeholders – most notably customers, potential hires, and investors through appropriate channels such as your marketing materials and company’s website.  Err on the side of over-communication.

Now, the easy part is over. From this day forward you must spend every day making sure that you and everyone in your company are honoring the values you so diligently worked to define and express.  Do so, and you will create a truly extraordinary company.

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