Building an action-based culture

We hear it a lot: core values, culture, traits, [insert other buzz word here]. In all of the previous companies that I’ve worked for, I’ve always had an interest in culture and how it gets established. Is it as easy as having “Respect”, “Diversity” and “Humility” plastered on your careers page like the big fortune 500 companies do? Once it’s written down on a big chalkboard or on your website, are people going to follow it as gospel? More importantly, how do we establish these in our company? Echoing in my head is a quote from Peter Thiel when talking to Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb: “Don’t fuck up culture”.

In the early days of 7shifts, I hired largely based on gut along with a healthy blend of “do I like this person?” and “are they skilled?”. Obviously those qualities are completely subjective to the person doing the hiring. This seemed to work ok in the beginning, but as we started to grow, I wanted to make sure we could scale based on tangible character traits and attract the right people. In general, I knew I wanted our company to be a place where you could work hard, learn, have fun, and feel like you’re part of a big family working towards a big goal.

I decided to hunker down and spend a few weekends researching what other tech companies were doing to establish their culture. From mixing my findings with traits that are important to me, I established some key values that I liked and felt were true to what I wanted for our company. By the end of it, I had 5 main categories and about 6 points for each. Doing some quick math, that’s 30 total values.

I put it into a Google Doc with a slick 7shifts logo at the top and wrote “Core Values” underneath it. I was excited to make it part of the on-boarding process for new employees and to pass out this 1-pager to the rest of the team. I felt great. “Here are our values — let’s all be like this, ok?”. A number of folks had it on their desk and could be referenced at any time.

After several weeks, something didn’t feel quite right. Nobody could remember all of them, neither could I. There were so many core values to try and keep track of, how can we possibly screen candidates for each one? I went back to the drawing board to figure out why I felt like I was missing something. Then I stumbled across a post by Jeff Lawson, CEO at Twilio.

Twilio established core values when they were 10 employees, then re-visited them at 50, and so on. The idea behind their approach was to select a small group of people that he felt could provide meaningful contribution to shaping the company’s future core values. The goal was to get all of these people in a room and think of concise values that are action-based. From there, the meeting-holder (likely the CEO) would record everyone’s responses on a whiteboard with a number beside it until the numbers were in the triple digits. After you’ve exhausted everyone’s brain juices and you can’t think of any more, each person picks 3 oxygen values (ones they can’t live without in a new hire).

I decided I wanted to go through a similar process to see if it would fill the void that I felt was missing. We picked an evening, ordered in, and got down to writing as many action-based values we could think of on our whiteboard.

There were some amazing contributions from doing this exercise. Everyone chimed in and we had a lot of fun doing it. It also helped to find out what things were important to certain people on your team that you may not have known.

While the ideas were really flowing, we also found that it was easy to revert back to using generic terms like “Respect”. While these are generally good things to have, they’re not action-based. How can you screen if someone matches your criteria for “Respect”? If you define concrete action-based examples of how you measure respect, you can have something like “Be a good listener”. Then in the interview process, if your candidate is actively listening to you, that could be an indicating factor of someone who is respectful. If you go through this white-boarding exercise, you’ll have to re-align the ship to using action-based values when things start to get too vague and drift into the single-word, non action-based realm.

I then took pictures of the whiteboard (so we had a reference to the numbers), sent it to everyone and attached a Google Form where they could vote on their top 3 values. After everyone voted, we tallied the results. Here are the top values we came up with:

What I realized is that it’s important to remember that culture is living a group of values set forth by a core group of people — a tribe. It can be accidentally formed through messy hiring, or you can be intentional about growing it.

Let’s say you have early employees that are solution-driven individuals and team-oriented. Then the next person you decide to hire throws up roadblocks instead of actively contributing to solutions, complains and only thinks selfishly about how decisions affect themselves. For hiring this type of individual, you run a risk of them bringing down some of your top performers, this is something you just can’t afford as an early stage company. Most people feed off of the energy of others, and whether we recognize it or not, that vibe or energy has a major influence over a company’s productivity.

(Image above taken from Buffer’s blog post on culture)

There’s no doubt that being an early stage company comes with its own set of challenges. I’ve had to let a small handful of people go during this journey, long before we had nailed down our values. I never feel good about it in the moment, but I’ve also never once regretted it. They weren’t a fit and didn’t exhibit the action-based values we now look for. Through all of this, I’ve learned a lot about myself, my colleagues, and what I think it takes to build a successful team. From these learnings, we’re equipped to hire better and with more confidence going forward.

Interested in working with an amazing team that sometimes unintentionally dresses the same? Apply for one of several positions in Toronto or Saskatoon!