As a CEO or startup leader, a common challenge is how to get everyone at your company to act in a cohesive, effective, and aligned way. How to support your team to make good decisions, take the right actions, and prioritize effectively. You can’t be everywhere at once, and you don’t want to micromanage anyone. But it’s hard to translate a set of principles and behaviors to get folks acting cohesively. Company values, and the process of defining and embedding them, are the best way to close this gap and guide team’s decisions and actions, even when you’re not in the room.
Table of Contents
What are values?
Values (n): principles or standards of behavior; judgment of what is important.
Values explain who you ARE and how you THINK. They guide what you DO and how you ACT.
- Unique to your company; not generic, or buzzword-y
- Specific and concrete; not vague or difficult to articulate
- Lived — i.e. visible in everyday interactions; not pasted on the wall and forgotten
- Consistent over time, and across situations
- Tied to outcomes — i.e. if someone regularly doesn’t adhere to established values, they should not be part of the company; no exceptions
Whether you’ve intentionally articulated culture and values or not, your company already has a set of values that guide overall culture and individual behavior. These are the things that are consistently reinforced within your company. Some of these inherent values are likely already aligned with the direction you want to guide culture in the future. Other inherent values may be things you want to move away from over time. This process will help to make company values explicit, so you can guide culture more intentionally as you grow.
One key thing to note before starting the process of defining your values, is to know that the true impact comes with how they are embedded in the company’s day to day. Values are not meant to be built out, pasted on the wall, and forgotten about. They need to be infused everywhere — recruiting, interviewing, onboarding, internal and external messaging, goal-setting, decision-making, sales, marketing, operations, 1:1s, performance reviews, off-sites, and beyond. This is where values come to life to guide decisions and actions. However, you can’t embed them before you build them. This post will cover the process of building out your values, and embedding them in your team’s day to day.
Step 1: Who are you?
Much of the way values come to life, especially early stage, comes from 1) the founders’ values & identity, and 2) the way early team members work together.
To begin the process of identifying your company values, reflect individually on the following sets of questions. The first focuses on you as a founder, your identity, and how your personal values have set the foundation for company culture. The second set uncovers how the early team has organically established shared values and shaped early company culture.
Founder / Identity / Personal Values
- What do I believe in strongly / care about deeply?
- What characteristics do I value in the people around me / what characteristics do my friends have in common?
- What sets me apart from or makes me different from other people?
- What’s my working style? How do I make my best decisions?
- What are my strengths?
- What are my weaknesses?
Early Team / Existing Values
- What words or phrases tend to come up over and over when you or others describe your company and the way you act?
- What does it mean to ‘be one of us’ at your company — what sets you apart? Why do people choose to join your company over another?
- What actions or behaviors are reinforced (through positive feedback, promotions, etc)?
- What actions or behaviors are discouraged or feel misaligned?
- How do you talk about the company when making key hires?
Once you’ve reflected on these questions, start to identify the themes, patterns, and overlapping ideas from your answers. These themes can be anything, from a ‘bias to action’, ‘speed over perfection’, to ‘social impact’, or ‘continuous feedback to drive growth’.
Step 2: Bring in key stakeholders
Next, decide on your key stakeholders — the folks you’ll collaborate with to identify company values. This group is usually co-founder(s), executive team, a hand-picked group of key or early employees who exemplify and embody your inherent values. Aim for a working group of ~4–10 people. The exact number of people is up to you, but roughly tracks to company size. If your company is less than 20 people, your working group will likely be closer to 4. If your company is 100+ people, it will likely be closer to 10.
Let your working group know they will be part of the process to identify company values. Ask everyone to individually answer the “Early team / Existing Values” questions above and pull out their themes, ideas, and phrases. Your co-founder(s) should also answer the “Founder / Identity / Personal Values” questions.
Once everyone has had a chance to reflect individually on the “Early Team / Existing Values” questions, come together and share your themes and ideas with each other.
First, get everyone excited! Share company vision and mission statements, relevant context, goals, and the framework for this process to set the stage. Run this meeting in a way that fits best for your company. This could mean having people write down their themes and ideas on post-its and put them up on the wall grouped by theme. Or, it could be adding all the ideas to a shared doc and running through one by one. It could be going round robin with each person sharing their top 2–3 themes or ideas, or it could be everyone jumping into a discussion ad hoc. This discussion itself will reflect your values and culture as a company, so be thoughtful about the space you create and how you run this meeting. Here is a sample agenda in Appendix B for what this meeting might look like.
A helpful exercise to kick off the first meeting is a ‘values in action’ exercise, which helps bring values to life, and gets everyone in the right mindset. Ask each person to share a story of when they and / or others on the team exemplified and lived into a company value. This could be something like the way the team worked through a crisis, how a big win was celebrated, how an individual or team made a tough decision, or any example of how a company value guided the work.
The goal of this initial discussion is to come out with a long list of the strongest themes, ideas, words, and phrases that will eventually become your articulated values. This initial list may be 50 or more items long. There will likely be overlap in many of the ideas, so the next step is where you’ll start to narrow down the list.
Step 3: Narrow down your drafted values
Schedule a follow up discussion with your working group a few days or week after the initial discussion. This will give everyone time to sit on the ideas and revisit with fresh eyes. From your initial list of 50+ themes and ideals, group together the items with overlap, and start to hone in the themes or phrases that resonate most strongly with the group. A few questions to ask during this discussion are:
- Which values capture who we are now and who we are becoming as we grow?
- Which values highlight or articulate the ways in which we are unique or different from other companies?
- Which values help guide team & individual decisions and actions?
- Which values resonate throughout the employee lifecycle: from interview and onboarding process, to prioritization and communication, to performance management, to departure from the company?
This discussion may feel easy and fast, or you may feel some conflict or tension. This is all normal! Invite the process; it may take time. Let everyone share their point of view, debate the themes and the individual words being used. Let the different voices in the room guide toward what resonates and feels real and authentic for your company. Here is a sample agenda in Appendix C for what this meeting might look like.
Narrow down your longer list to 8–12 words, phrases, or ideas (you’ll narrow this down further later on). This may take one meeting, or it may take a series of discussions. This short list should be the tenets your company can’t, or wouldn’t want to, live without.
From here, the themes or ideas you’ve identified should start to translate into phrases. As an employee of your company, how will reading the cultural values serve as a guide for how to think, act, make decisions, and interact with colleagues? What do each of your 8–12 themes or ideas mean at your company in particular? How do they show up in the way you think and act? How do you live them when you work together?
These themes and ideas are your rough draft values for deeper consideration. They don’t need to be phrased or worded perfectly at this stage. They just need to clearly convey the idea and meaning behind it.
Step 4: Gather feedback
Once your working group is aligned around the 8–12 drafted values, this is the point in the process where you may want to share more broadly to gather feedback and get buy-in beyond the core working group. Whether or not you include a broader group in the process should also feel aligned with your company culture. Will folks feel more bought into the values if they have a chance to weigh in and offer feedback? Will there be strong opinions about having a say in the process? This part is up to you, but should feel aligned with the way you run other larger processes at your company. Generally, I do recommend gathering feedback from a broader group of folks on the team.
If you do include a broader group, send out a survey that asks for reactions to the drafted list of cultural values to gauge whether they resonate, feel representative of all levels of the company, and to uncover gaps or blind spots that might be missing from your list.
Suggestions on questions to ask in the survey are here in Appendix D, though you’ll want to tailor the questions for your company, stage, and process.
Step 5: Finalize your values
Come back together with your working group and incorporate the broader feedback you received. Narrow down to between ~4–7 final company values. You should be able to recall and share your values easily and simply, so aim for 7 max. As a final step, solidify the phrasing of each value. Be thoughtful about how each is worded and framed to capture the meaning you want it to convey.
How you present these phrases should also reflect your company’s culture and values. Most values will be a short, memorable statement with a brief explanatory sentence. For example…
- “Draw the Owl. There’s no instruction book — it’s ours to draw. Figure out, ship it, and iterate.” (Twilio)
- “Stay focused. Distractions slow us down. We’re proud to say no, so that when we say yes we can do our best possible work.” (Cruise)
- “Courage. You say what you think, when it’s in the best interest of Netflix, even if it is uncomfortable” (Netflix)
Once your list of values is finalized, ask yourself — are our values:
- Unique to our company; not generic, or buzzword-y
- Simple, specific and concrete; not vague or difficult to articulate
- Lived — i.e. visible in everyday interactions, choices, and decisions
- Consistent over time, and across situations
- Tied to outcomes — i.e. if someone regularly doesn’t adhere to established values, they should not and will not continue to be part of the company; no exceptions.
Your values won’t necessarily resonate with or fit for everyone in the world — that’s the point. They should speak to people who are the right fit for your company*.
*However, this ‘fit’ needs to be defined with diversity, equity and inclusion in mind. Defining strong organizational fit is not an excuse to be exclusionary.
Existing vs. aspirational values
Reflect on your final list of values. Is there anything key not captured there that you want the company to become or grow into? This is where aspirational values come in. Aspirational values are the values that your company may not embody yet, but that you believe are and will be important as the company grows. It could be values that everyone agrees are important and that you’re working toward, but that it’s clear aren’t quite there yet in terms of how the team behaves.
Aspirational values should be thoughtful, and limited, otherwise it may feel like too much of a reach / inauthentic. You don’t want a list of 7 values where half of them don’t feel accurate for who the company is right now. If you include an aspirational value, make it clear it’s aspirational and that you will guide the team to incorporate the value and live into it over time.
Embed your values… everywhere
Great work — you’ve identified your company values!
Now begins the process of embedding and infusing your values everywhere possible. This is the part where most companies fail with values — they set it and forget it. A year later you ask a team member to articulate the values and they have no idea where to start.
Embedding company values is a process, but there are many places to begin building in mentions, discussions, and celebration of your values. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re rattling off all the values together in every conversation, but rather bringing each of the values into documentation, presentations, discussions, and decisions on a day to day basis. Here are some ideas on where to start building in your values:
- Interview process
- Hiring decisions
- All hands
- Exec team meetings
- Performance reviews
- Challenging decisions (operational or people related)
- Company updates
- Investor meetings
- Company website
- Sales (approach, process, decision making)
This list is not comprehensive, but shows there are pretty much endless opportunities to infuse values into culture day to day. Use them as a tool to define and strengthen culture, build alignment, make good decisions, and do great work.
The process of defining company values is an incredible way to set the foundation for a strong culture. While culture can often feel squishy and ill-defined, values are the guiding principles that help everyone from the CEO to ICs, understand what is important, what isn’t, how to make decisions, and how to act as a member of your company. Crafted carefully and embedded thoughtfully, values are the way to guide individual and team decisions and behaviors — without you having to be in the room.
Appendix A: Additional resources to guide your values process
Here are a few articles to support this exercise and get you thinking about values and culture.
- Draw the Owl and Other Company Values You Didn’t Know
- 80% Of Your Culture Is Your Founder
- Why Great Employees Leave Great Cultures
- Make Your Values Mean Something
Appendix B: Sample agenda for initial working group meeting
Once everyone in your working group has had a chance to reflect individually on the “Early Team / Existing Values” questions, come together for your first working group meeting to share your ideas with each other, and begin to generate your big list of drafted values. This meeting should be ~90min-2hrs.
The reason we’re engaging in this process now is…
The goals and value from going through this process are…
The working group’s role in this process will be…
Each individual’s role will be in this process…
Describe the Process
The process we will go through to establish our company values is…
This first meeting will be discussion / idea generation, not a decision meeting.
The output for this initial meeting will be a list of 50+ ideas and themes for our values that we will further narrow down.
Set the Stage: Mission + Vision
Reiterate company vision and mission as the foundation upon which values are built.
Get your working group excited to be involved in the process, and help them understand its importance to the company.
Initial Discussion & Brainstorm
Go through the ‘values in action’ exercise.
Share how will you have this discussion. Options could be:
- Everyone writes down their themes and ideas on post-its and put them up on the wall — then group together by theme.
- Add all ideas to a shared doc and running through one by one
- Round robin with each person sharing their top 2–3 themes or ideas
- Everyone jumping into a brainstorm discussion ad hoc
- Other? How do you typically run meetings like this?
Next Steps and Timeline
Who will own and guide the process?
When will the next meeting take place?
Who owns next steps?
What is each individual supposed to do / own between now and then?
Appendix C: Sample agenda for follow up working group meeting(s)
Schedule a follow up discussion with your working group a few days or week after the initial discussion. This will give everyone time to sit on the ideas and revisit with fresh eyes. From your initial list of 50+ themes and ideals, group together the items with overlap, and start to hone in the themes or phrases that resonate most strongly with the group. This meeting should be ~90min-2hrs.
Reset Context / Mission + Vision
Summarize where you left off in the last meeting
Set goals for this discussion:
- Begin to narrow down long list of 50+ themes
- The output for this meeting is to end up with 8–12 themes / rough draft values — this may happen in one meeting, or it may take several meetings.
Possible guiding questions (use your judgment, edit or change these questions as needed):
- Which themes capture how we are now and who we are becoming?
- Which themes highlight or articulate the ways in which we are unique or different from other companies?
- Which themes help guide team & individual decisions and actions?
- Which themes resonate throughout the employee lifecycle: from interview and onboarding process, to prioritization and communication, to performance management, to departure from the company?
- Once narrowed down to 8–12 themes, decide whether to share with broader team for feedback.
- Make this decision on how broadly to go with the working group (vs. one leader making this call).
Appendix D: Sample survey questions for feedback on drafted values
Send out a simple survey that asks for reactions to your drafted list of cultural values to gauge whether they resonate and feel representative at all levels of the company. This will also help uncover gaps or blind spots that might be missing from your list.
- On a scale of 1–5, how representative is this value of who we are as a company? (ask this question for each of the 8–12 drafted values)
- Which three values best capture who we are as a company and how we make decisions?
- Which of these values, if any, do NOT capture who we are as a company and how we make decisions?
- On a scale of 1–5, how actionable are these values to you in your day to day work? Ie — would these values serve as a guide for your behavior, decisions, and communication with other team members? Please explain. (short answer)
- Are there any values missing from this list that you believe are important to include based on who we are and how we work?
- Any other feedback you’d like to share?