About a year ago, our company hit a turning point. No longer a scrappy group of early employees, working out of a loft apartment, striving toward our foothold in the market.
Instead, we had become a legitimate business. Our team, which had burgeoned to 20 employees, now worked out of a real office with an actual conference room. Our brand, product and customer base were growing each day.
Yet while we successfully found the proverbial product/market fit with customers, we had begun to lose that same sense of cohesion across the team. How could we foster better team unity as we continued to grow?
It seemed like the right time to figure out what held us together: our shared set of values. This was uncharted territory for me. In past roles, my top priorities focused outward, on product, customers, and marketing. Now it was time to look inward.
I had no idea how we should go about coming up with our values. I did some research, looking for best practices from companies including Zappos, Netflix, and HubSpot – all well known for their thought-out approach to defining culture and a set of values distinct to each company. We implemented a plan over the course of nine months.
Whether you are a small company without a defined set of values, or a large company in need of refining or redefining those values, I hope what I learned will be useful to you.
Principle #1: Include and involve all employees.
To start, I sent out a short assignment asking employees, “What does Entelo mean to you?” I wanted to make sure every employee had a voice in the process, both to give everyone ownership of our values, and to ensure our values truly represented their experiences working at Entelo.
The team’s responses were enlightening. The words, phrases and ideas that came up repeatedly were strong indications of what should be represented in our values.
Then we held an overnight, company-wide retreat. The focus of the offsite, in addition to fostering team bonding through fun activities (bonfire! wine tasting! hiking!), was discussing the very question of Entelo’s values.
- What is our purpose?
- What inspires you about working here?
- What do you love about Entelo and what would you change?
We held these discussions both in small groups and as a whole company.
Unless one of your values turns out to be “rule from on high,” you should seek to include all employees in the process of defining your values.
Larger companies can do this, too. Have teams and departments meet in small sessions or use a company-wide survey to hear feedback on company values.
Principle #2: Make the values actionable, specific, and tailored to your company.
Once we had extensive notes from our offsite and from the homework assignment, we involved a smaller group to distill the feedback into a core set of values. Our smaller group involved the exec team, but it doesn’t have to be limited to upper management. The group should be representative of a variety of departments.
Although words like “respect,” “talent,” and “diversity” were clearly important to our team, it was crucial we make the value statements action-oriented, rather than a string of keywords. “Diversity” became one of our values, “We keep open minds and value diverse backgrounds and viewpoints,” for example.
If properly constructed, our values would help guide our behaviors as employees and managers; we would hire, promote, or reward based on these values, which would also guide us in how to treat customers, investors, and each other.
It was also important the values feel like our values – that any Entelo team member could look at them and recognize our company’s behaviors and principles, rather than those of a generic company.
Principle #3: Live and breathe your values.
More important than showing and sharing the values is acting according to them. Overseeing HR, I constantly encounter questions about employee performance and behavior. Before making difficult business decisions, I ask, “Is this choice consistent with our values?”
Taking action according to company values strengthens them, and make them legitimate, tangible, and credible to our fellow team members.
Principle #4: Respect the values you decide on, but revisit them and redefine them as needed.
It has only been a few months since we finalized our values, but I anticipate revisiting them the next time our company begins to feel like it’s pulling apart at the seams, in growth and as our company and product change.
Perhaps new employees will help shift our values in a different direction. Perhaps new products, markets, or strategies will cause one value to become more important and others to lose weight, or maybe the same values will still apply in a year or two but will need to be reinforced. Our values can serve as a guide for us, even as we recognize new circumstances may lead us to redefine them.
Establishing and living out a set of core values with your team is the tip of the iceberg in developing a strong company culture. What's next?
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