Your values are only as good as your most radical manifestation of them.
It’s the first slide of your all hands. The start of your team’s offsite. Your screensaver (wait — does anyone still have those?) It’s on the back of your badge, printed on the poster that hangs in your office, embroidered on your fleece and stitched onto your backpack.
It’s your company’s values. And they’re everywhere.
They can sound generic, they can sound grandiose, they can come in a short-hand only insiders can decipher. Values are an expression of the character of a company. What they stand for and what it’s like to work there.
The problem is they’re often just words. As a customer, investor, current or potential employee—how do you know if those words mean anything? How do you know if a company truly lives their values?
Exceptional companies. Iconic companies. Companies the envy of their competitors, loved by employees and coveted by customers. They don’t just have values—they radically live them. This is the true measure of whether or not a company’s values mean anything, to anyone, inside or outside of the company.
A litmus test for your values
Here’s a crude but effective way to measure a company’s conviction and commitment to their values:
Step one, pick a value, any value.
Let’s take transparency.
Step two, look for the most radical manifestation of that value inside or outside of your company.
How about salary transparency?
Step three: consider how many people live that value every day.
Imagine being able to see every employee’s salary, versus only the CEO’s—feel the difference?
Per the above, if you say you value transparency, you need to live like you value transparency. Placing restrictions, conditions, or disclaimers on how to live your values can lead to employees misconstruing or abandoning them altogether.
Head of the pack—what radical looks like
August, a management consulting firm, values transparency so much that they “default to open”—sharing their IP, financial models, hiring processes, and more all on a public drive anyone can access. Why? They believe sharing their work attracts like-minded people, surfaces and helps solve for biases in their hiring practices, and models what radical transparency looks like for the rest of the world.
And then there’s paid vacation. Like, actually paid vacation. FullContact gives its employees $7500 to use on vacation, but they only get the money when they take the time off. Why? Because teamwork. Or, per their CEO Bart Lorang, it’s a powerful way to eliminate behaviors that contribute to a team becoming dependent upon one individual (aka “hero syndrome”), and creates a culture truly wired for teamwork. It’s also a pretty damn good way to make sure people take a break.
Heart in the right place — but dig deeper
Silicon Valley is full of progressive business practices. One of the more popular ones is unlimited paid time off (PTO). It is generous, alluring, differentiating — but what value is it trying to signal? Companies with unlimited PTO policies, ask yourselves, what value are you trying to express through this benefit? If the answer is “give employees time to relax and recharge”, perhaps a policy closer to a vacation bonus, like FullContact’s, is better than unlimited time off — which people may or may not use. Companies looking to express their values through their employee benefits should be sure the perks they offer honor the behaviors behind the values they’re incentivizing.
False flags — when values and actions are in conflict
Meritocracy sounds like the promised land of performance management. But meritocracy requires nuance. Context. Considered complexity. Compare that with forced rankings, the celebrated tool of management consulting, and until very recently, the performance review process favored by industry titans like GE, Microsoft, and Ford. Why would places that strive to be meritocratic suddenly ditch forced rankings?
If you value meritocracy — and have a room full of high-performers — why would you apply a forced distribution? It forces some of those high-performers to be ranked average, regardless of merit (and can breed a competitive, survivalist culture.) The two are inherently at odds. When values clash with process, values always perish.
FWIW, a pretty radical idea kept popping up while we wrote this article. Several people suggested that the only values worth anything are the ones you get fired over. When we repeatedly make the wrong choice, when we really screw up (e.g. SNAFU, shitshow, or clusterfuck)—what is the value that if neglected can get you fired?
Now if you’ve made it this far you may have noticed we’ve avoided using a naughty word… culture. Why? Because discussions on culture quickly veer off into the world of jargon, philosophy, or Silicon Valley mysticism. Yes, your culture is a reflection of your values. But, what is culture? We’ve got a pretty simple way of answering that, but to find out you’ll have to stay tuned.
So, until then — live a life worth getting fired over.
Arthur Julio Nelson is a Strategy Director at Wolff Olins, and an advisor to founders and startups. He works with leaders and their teams to craft their vision, help shape their strategy, and through storytelling and design bring it all to life. Arthur is based in San Francisco, California.
Natasha Ouslis is an organizational behavior consultant at BEworks, while finishing her Masters and Doctorate at Western University in Canada. She uses science to make better strategic, financial, and workplace decisions.
Beautiful illustration by Trisha Kietikul.