BACKED People & Culture Series

If your values can’t guide you at these crunch points, your values kinda suck

How to stress-test your values to create a meaningful, authentic culture

Rachel Grahame
Jul 13 · 9 min read
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“Culture”. It’s not just for hippies. (HLD/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

When I joined Backed in 2018, I was a refugee from the corporate world. I’d spent a decade or so working in traditional, grey-suit professional services outfits where hierarchy was king and the word ‘culture’ was for hippies. At interview, nothing showed me I wasn’t in Kansas any more quite so much as the frequency, and thoughtfulness, with which the Backed team talked about their values. They were mentioned in all of my six interviews. I was interrogated for my thoughts on each one. They were Blu-tacked to the windows of the corner they occupied in an East London co-working space (youth!). I heard that at one point, t-shirts were mooted. It was a lot.

I later learned that Backed had only recently completed a lengthy values development exercise. Beginners’ enthusiasm might have gone some way to explaining why I heard so much about them then; but despite keeping my eyes peeled, I never saw any dropping-off of that original keenness. I quickly realised that this was because, far from whacking the values on the website and being done with them, we were really using them. All the time.

I wasn’t part of the team that devised the Backed values under the guidance of Sophie Dollar and Beeker Northam, but as functional head of People Operations I spend most of my time engaging with team culture and thinking about how our values shape our day to day operations. Moreover, I’ve been preparing to deliver workshops to our portfolio on setting meaningful values for their own organisations. So eighteen months, a second fund and an office move since Backed VC chose to Put People First, Bring Good Energy, Push The Limits, and Be An Apprentice, I decided to hold our values up to the light, and ask: when, and how, have our own values been valuable?

Backed’s values: Put People First. Be An Apprentice. Push The Limits. Bring Good Energy.

Now, after all that reading, thinking, and listening, I’m in a position to offer you some free unsolicited advice for utilising your own values, or stress-testing the ones already daubed on your walls.

First things first: how do you even know your values are any good?

This could be a whole article on its own, but as a rule of thumb, ask the following questions:

  • Are they memorable?
  • Do they speak to your identity?
  • Can you argue with them?
  • Do they leave you open to criticism?
  • Will they guide you when the chips are down?

To illustrate, here’s a worked example from the Backed values roster.

This one’s my favourite, as a people practitioner: Put People First.

First of all, it’s memorable — whether it’s science or self-fulfilling, the rule of three does seem to play out. Then, it speaks to our identity. VC is not generally imagined as a people business, but we recognised early that we would fail if we didn’t make people the very centre of the work we do. Investing at seed stage, we prioritise founder exceptionalism over any other company attribute: the people we invest in are even more important than the businesses they drive. We fund, advise, and coach our founders and their teams; we’re answerable to our investors; we have commitments to our venture scouts, to our communities, to each other. This is core to who we are as an organisation, and we want people to know that about us.

You can certainly argue with it: I’ve ruled out candidates at interview who insisted that this was a bullshit value, that no successful business can ever truly make people its first priority. Millions would agree with them: countless business behemoths operate on the basis that making money, winning industry awards, making more money, and crushing the competition is what it’s all about. That’s fine. I’ve seen it work, in the sense that those companies did achieve all those things. I’ve also witnessed the human collateral damage — the toxic behaviours and the burnout — that results from this. It just wouldn’t work here, and that’s a choice we make daily.

This value also leaves us open to (a ton of) criticism by giving us a standard to measure our behaviours against. In his polemic What You Do Is Who You Are, Ben Horowitz writes:

There’s a saying in the military that if you see something below standard and do nothing, then you’ve set a new standard.

When you know where the bar is, it’s simple to point to what falls beneath it and offer feedback for course correction. If someone does fall short, it’s far easier and more powerful to have a values system to measure their behaviours against, than it would be simply to offer that you don’t like the way they do business.

In fact, “Put People First” has inspired more debate around offsite tables than any other. We’ve asked: If a partner is late for a portfolio call because they’re consoling a bereaved team member, is that putting people first? Which people? When a manager reschedules a 1:1 with their report because an investor has an urgent query, is that putting people first? You can argue both yes and no — we have argued both yes and no — but this is a feature, not a bug. This value’s strength is that it compels this kind of conversation, leaving room for just enough ambiguity to keep us doubling down on and refining the parameters of our gold standard.

And crucially, it guides us when the chips are down — and it’s these crunch points that I want to dig a little deeper into, as their importance in relation to your values cannot be overstated. If you can’t (or don’t) consult your values as you would an almanac, or a spiritual text, then congratulations: you’ve conducted a half-decent PR exercise and set yourself up for a lot of aggro in the process.

So what are the crunch points? Where can your values be most helpful?

1. Hiring

I’m a recruiter by trade, so I could write a ranty longread on this subject alone, but thankfully for you, that’s not why we’re here. So what do your values have to do with hiring? If you’ve set them well, the answer is: everything.

Hiring for values

If you’re not hiring for your values — or worse, if you find yourself hiring someone despite their not appearing to live up to them — then you’ve set the wrong values. At Backed, we ask probing questions at interview for each of ours (e.g. “Which of our values resonates the most with you? And the least?” for an overview, or “Tell me about a time when you’ve felt out of your depth, and what you did about it” for Be An Apprentice). In fact, values fit is the first metric by which we measure applicants to every role. But it doesn’t end there.

You’ve got to demonstrate your values during the hiring process, too.

Your values should inform every step of each recruitment project. Think about them when deciding how you source your candidates. Be deliberate in designing your interview process, and use your values to determine how that process will work. Then, at interview, remember that you are an advertisement for your company and its values; and if you appear to behave in a way that’s at odds with the virtues you claim to hold dear, you can trust that applicants will pick up on that and vote with their feet. (I’m reminded of one hiring manager of my former acquaintance, who would pointedly answer emails throughout interviews — in front of a wall emblazoned with the word RESPECT.)

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I recently undertook a redesign of our hiring process, and our values were crucial to the honing of each step. I made sure that we now demonstrate apprenticeship by spending quality time acquainting ourselves with the CV of every candidate before we meet them. We bring good energy by ensuring we’re device-free during our interviews (I throw my hands up here because previously, and I cringe to write this, I was the one touch-typing interview notes on my laptop in real time). We put people first by offering developmental feedback to all interviewees we do not progress. And we push the limits by being agile with our interview process, while ensuring that all candidates still have the same experience.

2. Employee experience

Trust me on this: If you can’t walk the walk close to home, everyone will know.

In your appraisals, your 1:1s, your feedback sessions, refer to the values. When measuring someone’s work and behaviours, address them in the context of the values. Praise your colleagues for embodying them and don’t be shy about saying where you think they could have done better against them.

3. Customer experience

In our personal lives, our values (whether they’re written down or not) can determine who we get to be friends with, what kinds of interactions we have with those friends, and how they think about us. They also determine how we think about ourselves: how we get to experience pride, or shame, or a sense of achievement. As a business, your values should set you apart from the competition every day, all the time, in your quotidien dealings with everyone you encounter. Your customers should know what you stand for when you’re on the pitch, when you’re setting terms and conditions, and at every single point of the customer journey thereafter.

Countless times now, when a founder has chosen to sign our term sheet over another, they’ve repeated our lived values back to us as the reasons why they chose to take us on their journey. When we’ve taken the time and considerable energy to learn their complex and technical business in order to speak to them as a peer; when we’ve taken DD calls at 4am; when we’ve made a crucial introduction: we hear about that, and so do others out there. That’s not just important, that’s your IRR.

4. Business Unusual

If there’s anything that living and working through my second economic downturn has taught me, it’s that your values become invaluable to you when BAU becomes B un-U. How do you behave in a crisis? How do you deliver bad news? How do you show people your priorities?

As a venture capital firm, the bread and butter of our business is supporting our founders from Seed to Series A. When the landscape of international business altered suddenly and completely in March 2020, we realised that we needed to pivot, quickly, to pooling all our energies into our Founder Experience Programme. We asked ourselves how we could best put our values into practice to cater to our portfolio’s unique needs during a wild and tumultuous period. Within two weeks of UK lockdown we had launched a business programme, a wellness programme, a webinar series, and a newsletter exclusively for Backed portfolio employees, as well as cross-functional community hubs to disintermediate ourselves and allow professionals to help each other out. Had even one of us done any of this before? No! But when Be An Apprentice is one of your guiding lights, that’s rarely an obstacle.

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These aged well

In nearly two years of working at a values-centric business that knows itself well, I have learned some important lessons. Firstly, that all those years I spent in the corporate wilderness, feeling like an outsider terminally unsuited to the world of work, I was simply in the wrong place — the wrong places, in fact. These were firms that had either rejected the idea of company values wholesale, or conducted a cursory exercise, chosen the wrong ones, and forgotten about them.

That’s where their power lies, you see: your business’s lived values affect the day to day experience of everyone who touches it, and if you’re not clever about it, that experience can be extremely and unnecessarily painful.

Next — and this may seem obvious — I’ve now seen with my own eyes that while words can be inspiring, it’s backing them up with action that engenders trust. If you can use your values to foster a culture that pairs style with substance, you’re on to a winner.

Maybe I am a bit of a hippie after all.

Thank you for reading this article! Does it strike a chord? Anything missing? Leave heckles & billets-doux in the comments.

Rachel Grahame is Manager of Firm Operations and functional head of People Operations at BACKED, the human-centric European VC fund.

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