Three Ways To Create And Live Your Cultural Values

Sara Ramirez Morales

Helping founders achieve success through their people strategies

“Creating a strong company culture isn’t just good business. It’s the right thing to do, and it makes your company better for all stakeholders — employees, management, and customers” — Julia Hartz, CEO, Eventbrite

Culture and values within startups have come back on the agenda in a big way recently. It can be easy to think that they’re just airy statements on a wall, but they have a real impact on the way your employees work with each other (which flows on to how they deal with your customers), and this ultimately hits your bottom line.

If you create values that are vague or lack substance, you might run the risk of creating an unhealthy culture that lacks diversity of thought, and that might not appeal to excellent candidates. Doing this is pretty much the exact opposite of what you should want for your startup as your team is scaling!

So what can you do to make sure you’re getting the foundations right?

#1 Don’t make your values vague

As Jodie Auster pointed out at Pause Fest in February, if you don’t clearly define a strong set of values, your culture can turn into something you didn’t intend.

Let’s strip away the fluffy stuff: at their core, your values are the standards of behaviour that should guide the way your teams interact with each other and with their stakeholders. They might originate from the way you work together as a team, make decisions, or deliver your products to consumers. Irrespective of their origins, they should have a clear meaning and should help to support the culture you want to build. A culture will grow around you whether you feel it’s important or not, so take the time to define what your expectations are. This is going to make your life a whole lot easier as your team grows! Which brings me to my next point…

#2 Use your values to interview and hire for your culture

I love seeing company values splashed on careers sites or in culture decks posted online. But while having them online helps in attracting candidates, it won’t contribute to creating the culture you want unless you hire with them in mind. As Julia Hartz calls out, “every team member will shape the company culture, so recruit people who share your values”.

Once you’ve defined your values, think of the most relevant “tell me a time when” type interview questions that will give interviewees the opportunity to show how they are already living your values. If they give you hypothetical answers, or they can’t provide solid examples, take a moment to think about whether you can afford to hire someone who isn’t culturally right for your team. It can cost anywhere from 90%-200% of a departing employee’s salary to replace them, so there’s a pretty clear financial incentive for making sure your new hires are right culturally.

#3 Recognise employees who demonstrate that they live your values

If you want to encourage your teams to continue living your values after they’ve started, make sure you take the time to reward and recognise individuals who demonstrate this. This doesn’t have to come with the hefty price tag associated with salary increases or bonuses because rewards given publicly carry much more weight in influencing how people behave and salary conversations tend to happen behind closed doors.

Think about ways to measure how employees are living your values (this could be through monthly or quarterly peer or leadership nominations) and publicly recognise the chosen winner during team meetings or at your All Hands. An extra win here that you might not realise is that praise is often one of the most powerful ways to engage and motivate employees!

Also, think about the message that promotions and great project or leadership opportunities give. If you’re handing these out to people who might perform well, but who don’t exemplify the behaviours that are essential to your culture, how might this affect the way people behave in your team? As Netflix point out in their much hyped (and rightly so!) culture deck, actual values — not the nice-sounding values — are shown by who gets hired, promoted, and let go.

You have an exciting opportunity to build a healthy, motivating culture around you that will support your long-term growth. By spending some time on your values now, you’ll create the culture that will help take you to the next level!

What do you do to foster the culture you want in your business? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!