Now, more than ever, we are searching for meaning in our work. That doesn’t mean we all want to work for companies have a mission to do only good. But most of us want to work for a company that knows what it stands for, and what it values.
Company values are an operating system. They are a filter for decision-making. They bring your people together through shared understanding and help you work out who should be there in the first place.
At the beginning of the year, we set about defining our own values. We’re still a small company but we already felt that we needed to decide what we value as a collective so that we can tell the world what we’re all about; make faster, better decisions; and make sure we can find the right people to join us as we grow.
This post talks through the process we took, and how you can adapt it for your own company, whether you’re ten or 10,000.
What are company values?
There are countless definitions and expressions of values. The best explanation I’ve seen is from Good to Great author Jim Collins who defines them as:
“A small set of timeless guiding principles”
Let’s break that down:
A small set. Read: be disciplined. There’s little point in creating a long list of values that no one will ever remember. It’s tough, but be prepared to let go of ideas along the way.
Timeless. Values shouldn’t be influenced by trends, fads or what your competitors are doing. Core values are universal concepts that anyone can understand and that will be as relevant in fifty years as they are today.
Guiding principles. Your values need to have a real, practical, everyday application in every part of your business. If it’s not clear what a particular value would mean equally for someone in the Customer Service team as in the Finance team, then it’s probably not one of your company values.
OK, it’s time to define some values.
You don’t need a complicated framework to come up with your company values. The process itself can be pretty simple.
What you do need is time. And patience. You might have to go through this process or part of this process a couple of times before you get to an answer. And even once you’ve taken your values out of the oven, you need to let them rest and come back to them a bit later.
1. Set your objective
First up, we were really clear with the whole team on what we were trying to achieve. We set our objective:
To identify 3 – 5 core values that speak for themselves.
Ambiguity and banality kill company values. We want to make sure ours didn’t require any further explanation; that they made sense straight away; and that they were memorable. Otherwise, what’s the point?
2. Create a long, longlist
We asked everyone in the Jobvibe team to go away and answer two questions:
- What do you love about working here?
- What can’t you stand about working here?
The aim was to identify attributes that both come naturally to us, and ones which we’re not so good at, but we aspire to be.
About a week later we all got together in a room to hear from each team member and create a long, long list:
Getting your whole company involved in the process might not be that practical. But there are a couple of ways around this.
If your priority is to collect input from as many people as possible then a short survey will work really well. It’s up each employee whether they respond or not. The ones who care will.
Alternatively, you can ask a small group of employees to take part in the same hands-on approach we used. For this, select high performers and influencers. Jim Collins calls this the Mars Group. If you can select those people from across different departments and levels, even better. Different perspectives, knowledge, and experiences will get you to a much better outcome than if you select people only in leadership roles.
Of course, you can change up the questions you ask this group. We kept our questions very easy to answer; some team members had only been on the team for a couple of months and some hadn’t even met each other.
The trick is ask something a bit pointy; to get people thinking. You can ask people straight out what they think the company values should be but it’s difficult to get past generic concepts with this approach. Ask them a question like, “What attributes do you admire in your teammates?” and you’re more likely to get to the good stuff.
3. Group and cut
We had our long list. The next step was to do a bit of analysis to get down to a few big ideas. This is not a task that works well in a big group so assign one or two people to work on it. We ended up with five idea groups:
Once you have a more comprehensible list, you can take it back to the team who helped you get there.
4. Test your commitment
Now the hard part. We had to ask ourselves, one-by-one, could we stand behind this value no matter what.
Zappos have this stage down to one, two-part question:
Are you willing to hire/fire people based on whether they fit your core values, even if an employee adds a lot of value in the short-term?
But there are many other tests:
- Would you stand by this value even if it became a competitive disadvantage in future?
- Would you defend this value to a shareholder who didn’t agree?
- Would you refuse to serve a customer who compromised this value?
If a value doesn’t cut it, it has to go.
5. Work on the words
By this point, we had five, discreet ideas that we could all stand behind. But we needed to work on our working titles.
Many companies try to pin down the big ideas behind values and their creative expression in one go. But the creative expression is where a lot of the magic (and memorability) happens so it needs its own step.
At this point, we brought in some smart friends and creative acquaintances to help us out. Here’s where we got to:
Jobvibe’s company values
Love what you do
Every day we come to work and do what we love. We have a wholehearted belief in our vision and we’re here to make it happen. You’ll see this passion in our every interaction with customers, users and each other.
Take on the why
We’re here to change the way companies and teams work. But we know that to break the rules we need to understand them first. So, when we take on a problem we keep an open mind, start with the why and take it from there.
Listen and care
We have a lot of respect for our teammates, our customers, and our users. We’re curious about where they’re coming from and where they’re trying to go. When they talk, we listen. With this empathy, we’ll build a better product, a better team and better workplaces.
Speak up and talk straight
In our team, everyone has a voice. Every single one of us has a responsibility to say what we’re thinking, back it up and stay accountable to our ideas. Our aim is to be as open and honest as possible, without hurting anyone.
Make tough calls
To win, we need to move fast. So we have a razor focus on what’s essential to our vision, and drop what isn’t. But we know we won’t get it right every time; so when we trip up, we pick ourselves up, learn from it, and keep on running.
We’re still letting them rest, testing them out and working out what they mean for each of us in our roles. We have no doubt that they will evolve over the next few months. You’ll see we’ve added a short description for each. But we like to think that they speak for themselves as five stand-alone values. And over time, we hope they will become second nature.