How To Create and Sustain Company Values That Are Conducive To Success
Developing a suite of company values that are conducive to cohesion and growth is crucial to your company’s effectiveness and potential for success.
But as a founder, staying loyal to those values so they prove useful can be more difficult than you might think. You can hire talented people and exude your values with integrity and verve, but you can still end up managing a team of brilliant jerks — one that lacks dedication and crumbles at the first sign of adversity. After all, as some in tech circles would say “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
I experienced this first hand before starting Airfox. The founders of the company I worked for at the time made hiring decisions based solely on perceived levels of talent, ignoring critical intangibles like character or conviction. Predictably, when things got rough and times called for long hours and grit, teammates turned on each other. Without a value map to guide the behaviors of your employees, your company gets exposed to poisonous behaviors such as politics, self-interest, unnecessary conflict and avoidance of challenges.
But this sort of organizational decadence can be avoided by solidifying your values on the front end. Here’s how to do it.
Keep in mind Google’s “Project Aristotle.”
Your company’s core values should collectively serve as something of a moral compass — informing your decisions and shaping your broader strategy. For this reason, they should be one of the first things you think about when building your company.
Before we hired anyone at Airfox, we thought hard about what we wanted our values to look like — what we wanted our company to stand for. We knew we had a quality product, and we knew that we were trying to solve an interesting problem. But we also knew that our values — more so than our product — would be what focused and sustained us moving forward; especially during the hard times, and in start-up land, it is always a hard time.
As we went through that process, we looked to Google’s “Project Aristotle” for guidance, which Google launched to determine what exactly makes great teams.
Google invested millions of dollars, thousands of collective hours and two full years into Project Aristotle, studying what factors breed top performing teams. The answer was amazing and unprecedented: psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact are the key traits of top performing teams. Hypotheses about metrics like personal friendships, strong management, team structure, personal interests, gender, longevity and other characteristics proved not to move the needle. No one can deny that Google’s culture and its “Googliness” is one of its chief competitive advantages.
Investing in the development of your company’s values like this will set your company up for success moving forward. It’s like laying a sturdy foundation for your house — a foundation that will sustain your company through times of doubt or difficulty when they arise.
Also, embrace Radical Candor and Radical Transparency on the day to day
Investing in your company values is not a singular event. Your values need to be continuously reinforced, tuned and enhanced by way of practice and regular implementation.
There’s a great book that guides this method called Radical Candor. It details the sort of working culture that every company should seek to cultivate — one where employees care enough about their company’s mission and purpose to push everyone to improve, but also feel safe enough to be receptive to feedback. Don’t believe me? Ray Dalio, the world’s most exceptional hedge fund manager, credits radical transparency as the key to Bridgewater’s success. You should be thinking of your company and its individuals as a living organism that can either grow or atrophy (there is no middle ground) through the corporate evolutionary process of the day to day.
One way to encourage and sustain this kind of culture is by conducting constant feedback sessions — regular meetings in which both lower-level employees and company leaders give and receive feedback on how their practice could be improved.
Such meetings put your values into action, forcing employees to hold each other accountable and meaningfully commit to the sort of growth mindset Radical Candor necessitates.
This is what will ultimately fortify your company’s values — living them, employing them in practice, and making them tangible and identifiable. Without doing this, your values remain merely conceptual. Transparency and candor are uncomfortable but as I have learned throughout my challenges, it pays off dividends in the long-run.
Utilize your values throughout the interview process to qualify for culture-fit
Once your values are established, they should inform every operations of your business — including, perhaps most importantly, who you hire.
At Airfox, we have 5 values in which we strive to live by:
- Authenticity- Share your real self, be open about your flaws because that makes us work better together (need total honesty for there to be trust). Be who you are, accept others for who they are i.e., be vulnerable and accept it when others are vulnerable with you.
- Audacious- We shoot for the moon. You will have the courage to take calculated risks and employ 10x thinking. You understand you’re contributing to something greater than the sum of our parts.
- Analytical- You smartly separate facts and data from assumptions (reason from first principles) Communicate thoughtfully and concisely — think things through and know your point well enough to make it short before you make it (If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter — Mark Twain) Be hypothesis driven: ask the right questions to derive solutions.
- Adaptable- No task beneath you, no task you can’t learn. Giving away your legos as company scales. Comfortable with ambiguity. Emotionally resilient.
- Altruistic- Building what is valuable and sustainable for the user is what will make us a more valuable and permanent business. Don’t be an asshole. Act in the best interest of Airfox and the user. Remember effective vs ineffective arguing (you are sharing a map which implies what you know could be wrong if you were looking at an incomplete map)
At AirFox we don’t just consider how talented a potential hire might be — we measure their ability to go above and beyond their particular responsibilities. We hire for values first beyond skill. We determine how flexible they are in the face of unexpected challenges and how willing they are to help others. As Ben Horowitz eloquently quoted in his book The Hard Things About Hard Things: “It is imperative that you hire for strength rather than lack of weakness. Everybody has weaknesses; they are just easier to find in some people. Hiring for lack of weakness just means that you’ll optimize for pleasantness.”
In this way, we use our values as key metrics against which candidates are measured. We’ve found this approach to be immensely valuable, as it helps ensure we always hire people who will further encourage our company culture.
Once hired, everyone is consistently measured (including the founders) on performance indicators created internally to attempt to quantify both work output and the inherited values of the company:
At the end of the day, your company’s values need to be reinforced and reflected first and foremost by you, the founder.
No matter how meaningfully you invest in your company values up front, if you as the founder don’t seek to maintain and enforce them, they will erode and eventually become useless. You need to walk the walk because talk is cheap.
You need to be reinforcing your values on a day-to-day basis, through every conversation you have and every decision you make. You should seek to illustrate your values, whatever they are — just like Jeff Bezos exemplifies Amazon’s values of scrappiness and equality, and just like the leaders at Google all seek to exemplify Googliness.
You need to live it.
If it’s not obvious that you as the leader of your company believe in the importance of your company values, your employees won’t believe in them, either. It’s that kind of apathy that results in teams turning on each other, crumbling in the face of adversity, succumbing to stagnation and rot.
Develop company values that reflect whatever values are important to you as a leader then seek to embody them every single day. Through a systematic but also organic process of internalizing the values of your company, you and your employees will naturally embody and reflect the values into behaviors and actions that will propel your business forward and give you a strong competitive advantage.