Start With Values

13 minutes, 15 links


Updated March 23, 2023

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The terms company values and company culture are often used interchangeably to refer to a company’s beliefs about the world and their “way of doing things.” But they are not the same. Having a clear set of company values is tremendously important to the success of a business. These values guide decision-making in all parts of the company, whether high-stakes strategic decisions, ethical decisions, or smaller day-to-day decisions (which, in aggregate, are just as important). Clearly stated values also provide a structured way to resolve disagreements.

cautionCulture without values puts you in the dangerous position of repeating patterns and behaviors that do not line up with how the company wants to see itself or what the company wants to accomplish. It’s worth noting that a company without explicitly defined values will still have a culture—just one that stems from the personalities and behaviors of its leaders and early employees, rather than one having any careful thought, design, or purpose. This can breed similarity of thought, behavior, and demographic makeup, none of which are good for a company’s business or employee retention.

It’s also worth noting that explicit values won’t prevent the development of toxic or unhealthy cultures. For example, a company might create a toxic culture by prizing overwork and self-sacrifice “for the greater good.” Uber’s culture was infamously tied to a set of well-documented and regularly reinforced values.* A company whose stated value is, say, “move fast and break things” might not expect cultural behaviors like asking questions, seeking input from all sides, or documenting process.

Defining and documenting values carefully, sharing them company-wide, and making sure that this documentation is accessible for all employees to refer to when making decisions, are essential steps for maintaining a strong culture at remote companies.

Defining Company Values

Companies are built in the image of their founders and leaders. Any list of values that are incompatible with the way leaders act is probably doomed to fail. When founders or early employees don’t recognize this, they are unable to manage any discrepancies and company values and culture can become toxic. As early as possible, it’s wise to record the values of the company and the values you want all employees to uphold. One of the biggest mistakes companies can make is waiting until they’ve hired a bunch of people; let your values inform hiring from day one.*

To create a starting point for companies to begin thinking about their values, we’ve merged a set of questions from First Round Review with slides on building company culture from Brian Chesky of Airbnb and Alfred Lin of Sequoia:

  • What are our strengths?

  • What are we outstanding at?

  • What sets us apart from the people around us?

  • What do we value about the people around us?

  • What qualities do we discourage?

  • How do we make our best decisions? (Think of a recent decision you made that had a good outcome. What process led to that?)

  • What are we bad at?

  • What can never be tolerated?

  • How do we resolve disagreements?

If you’ve already made your first few hires, it’s worth looping in the rest of the team when defining the values that will define the company. Using the list above, you can ask them what they think the company’s values are or should be, and what they think is important to the company culture. Everyone can write these down and then discuss them together. This can help ensure that value-setting isn’t too top-down, and can also expose instances of when a company’s leaders are lacking awareness of their own limitations.

If you have been operational for a while, a great strategy here is to look at people who have been successful (and not successful) at the company so far, and figure out what makes them different. Were they really passionate about the mission? Did they have a particular way of collaborating with others?

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During a scary moment of meaningful turnover during Bonobos’ early days, we articulated what we viewed to be the five core human values of the best people we had ever hired. I made the list by grouping the thirty people we had hired up to that point into three buckets: the ten best, the next ten, and the ten who hadn’t worked out. I asked myself what really separated the top ten from the bottom ten in terms of their humanity.Andy Dunn, co-founder, Bonobos*

In addition to being well-defined and explicit, you will want your company values to be the following:

  • Congruent with the company’s actual behavior. The people at your company—especially leaders and founders—reinforce values through both talk and action. You want to be able to ask anyone at the company what those values are, and get a pretty consistent answer. Also, it’s important for the way your company hires, fires, and promotes people to be reflective of those values.

  • Compatible with your mission, strategy, and goals. One of Quora’s values is “agility,” which can be great for a consumer internet company, but may not be as wise in an industry with heavy regulation or high cost of mistakes (like healthcare).

  • Unique and memorable. Values like “integrity” or “honesty” are so general that they could apply to any company. So unless your company has a unique take on what they mean, they are less likely to be remembered.

As a next step, it’s worth thinking about which of those values are most important to the success of the business. Most of the values of a company’s leaders should be compatible with the company’s mission (otherwise, there are bigger problems). But no person (or group) is perfect, and there might be traits or values that are critical to the company’s success that a founder can’t or doesn’t anticipate.

Documenting and Communicating Values

There should be no unwritten rules in remote culture. Intentional documentation is essential to avoiding dysfunction within a remote company, and this also applies to culture.GitLab Handbook*

One of the biggest challenges and opportunities of being a remote company is coming up with processes, norms, and practices for codifying and communicating values.

importantIt’s critical to document values in writing at a company’s earliest stages. The intent is to make the implicit assumptions and behaviors of early team members explicit by developing a set of values which clearly articulate to future members of the company how they are expected to make decisions. Your values are ideally the earliest entry to your company handbook.

The documentation can take many forms. Examples of how companies think about articulating and documenting their values and culture are publicly available:

Many of these companies make this information public as a way to share lessons with others and to attract people who might fit well within their cultures, based on the company’s values and on what they esteem in their employees. Whether or not you share this information publicly, it’s critical to make it available for all employees to consult asynchronously whenever they need and for whatever reason.

Values Based Hiring

Culture fit is shorthand for the many vague assessments or unexamined feelings hiring teams sometimes use to determine whether a candidate “belongs” at a company. While in most cases the intentions behind these decisions are not sinister, testing for this kind of vague quality can devolve into a “friend test” or “likability test” where candidates are assessed not on potential to do the job, but on similarity, kinship, or familiarity to the assessing employee.

It’s important to avoid hiring for culture. Instead, you will have better results by hiring for traits that are related to a new hire’s ability to perform the values the company upholds. Just as company culture and company values are often thought of as interchangeable, traits and values can be confused. While values refer to guiding principles and beliefs, traits are the inherent parts of someone’s personality that may help or hinder their ability to abide by stated values.

Traits are characteristics of a person that describe how they tend to feel, think, and behave, such as patience, adaptability, and being detail-oriented.

When hiring remote workers, looking for traits that will enhance the culture is important. For remote teams whose culture values written communication, it’s becoming more common to hire for communication ability, even for jobs that haven’t required strength in that area in the past. This is a good example of how all of these concepts fit together. If a company’s stated value is open communication, the cultural behaviors to promote are transparency and vulnerability, and the trait that can be hired for and rewarded within the company is humility. A high-ego individual might struggle to express doubt or ask for help, and therefore lack the ability to uphold open communication as a value.

In addition to hiring for traits related to a company’s values, there are certain skills that can also work to uphold values and influence culture. For example, given the importance of written communication in sharing values and norms with a distributed team, some remote companies have been proactive in recruiting candidates who are strong writers.

Hire great writers. If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer. It doesn’t matter if that person is a marketer, salesperson, designer, programmer, or whatever; their writing skills will pay off. That’s because being a good writer is about more than writing. Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking. Great writers know how to communicate. They make things easy to understand.Jason Fried, co-founder and CEO, Basecamp*

Guerric de Ternay, who has been a remote worker for more than a decade, underscores the value of written communication:

The reason communication has to be central is that remote workers can’t afford not being on the same page. When something bad happens, their ability to recover from it depends on how well they communicate. Sharing feedback and feelings as well as putting yourself in your colleagues’ shoes are the minimum required to solve any problem. Writing is the essence of most of what remote workers do. From programmers to marketers to designers to customers support teams, everyone writes in their daily job.*

At Zapier, writing is one of the skills they explicitly look for in job descriptions:

You’re a skilled written communicator. Zapier is a 100% remote team and writing is our primary means of communication. You’ll use written summaries and reports to communicate vision, strategy, plans, findings, and results to the engineering and full Zapier team.*

Reinforcing Values

Remote culture has to be an inalterable part of your company’s DNA.Nick Francis, CEO, Help Scout*

A major issue for remote companies who want an intact culture is not making the necessary changes to involve remote employees in that culture. Companies do face different degrees of challenge here. Some must come up with a way to manage culture across a main physical office space and a handful of remote offices; some have to contend with major time zone differences among a more largely distributed team; others are looking to create a cohesive culture across international borders.

What is more important is that remote companies, whatever model they choose or is feasible for them, operate within certain constraints that force the development of new practices, norms, and behaviors that can be useful for all types of companies. The fact of a distributed team—no matter how it is distributed, no matter how far—factors into almost all decisions, and it’s imperative for companies to be explicit about the values and associated practices that people need to support when working autonomously and asynchronously.

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