Values eat culture for breakfast, and here’s why.

Tian Shou
Tian Shou
Nov 12 · 9 min read
Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

The importance of values

Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and many successful founders and executives hold this belief in high regard. But there is something that goes deeper than the culture at a workplace, the values that represent a company.

A company’s values are the underlying truths, the foundational pillars that the founding team believed in; they are the rules the executive team live and breathe. At a lower level, values govern how individuals are expected to behave & collaborate, how decisions are made, how the company differentiates itself from competitors.

A company with a mediocre purpose and a robust set of values can be expected to last tens if not hundreds of years. Alternatively, a company with a grand mission but a mediocre set of values can see itself in the graveyard in a matter of years. In my opinion, having a set of robust, easily understood values is a fundamental ingredient (others include vision, people, processes) to creating companies that scale and endure.

Imagine two managers having a disagreement, if the organisation adhered to a set of great values such as, “Be user obsessed”, “Value transparency” and “Play, as a team” then those values along with a mutually understood mission will provide a framework for the argument to be correctly resolved in the right direction independent of executive decisions.

In a small organization, everyone understands the company values, but as the organization scales, the promotion of values becomes increasingly tricky. Companies without strong values will find it harder to hire and retain talent, they’ll find it harder to scale, and they’ll find it harder to sustain success. Great organizations interview, performance review, and celebrate individuals based on value fit, creating a positive feedback loop echoed throughout the organization.

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

Core values

Values are not created equal. Fundamentally there are a few that are seen over and over in organizations that are successful over long periods. In my experience, these core values are mandatory to the success (longevity and scale) of every business. The companies that share these values include Google, Amazon, Alibaba, Atlassian, etc.

Be user obsessed

Jack Ma famously said something that roughly translates into “customer first, employees second, shareholders third,” this sentiment is shared by many successful companies. As such empathizing and focusing on the user is the single most fundamental value to any organization.

The key to being user-obsessed is having empathy for users. Unless there is an obsession for the user, there will be a constant struggle and temptation to optimize for short term revenue while burning users. The benefit of focusing all business functions on the needs of the users is that focus ultimately produces goods & services that users want and will pay for over a long period, thus generating long term revenue growth.

Another reason why great organizations like Amazon and Google require all employees to live by this value is that to scale their product and services for different personas, they need individuals to be the champion and voice for many different personas. Smaller companies typically find some success solving problems for a niche set of users. Still, until they can empathize with more massive sets of users, they will have difficulties growing and scaling the business. Great organizations find scale by understanding and solving more pain points for more user groups without alienating the original base.

Take, for example, Google search, which initially launched a free service for search users, later they had to focus on a new group of users, advertisers who had entirely different pains, needs and ways to use the product. Suddenly Google had to balance the needs and wants of multiple groups of users, searchers wanted accurate results, and the advertisers wanted to be seen regardless if they were the most precise result. Google did a great job solving the pain points for the advertisers without alienating the original users of their product.

Another reason to continually obsess over users is the fact that as the needs and wants of the users evolve, the products and services must evolve with it. Nokia, Blockbuster, and Myspace are companies that once understood and built products that users loved but failed to change with their user’s pain points.

Finally, humans are social animals at our roots, and it brings joy to help one another. By focusing on the users, individuals within the organization take pride and joy in their work, thus increasing employee retention and the longevity and success of the organization.

Ownership & leadership

Companies that follow this type of value include Amazon, Google, Atlassian, Facebook. Google’s version of this value is, “Be actively involved; you are Google.” When individuals in an organization share this value, they identify the issues that typically slip through the cracks. Not only will they recognize the problems, but they will also take it upon themselves to either fix it themselves or find people to fix it together.

One of the worst things that can happen to a company as it scales is turning into a bureaucratic nightmare where unless the issue falls EXACTLY into an individual’s list of responsibilities, there is no incentive for that person to act. It’s typical to see companies successfully grow, reach a decent size, and seemingly peak as issues pile up without anyone taking charge to innovate and break out of the status quo.

Imagine an organization that is growing fast; there’s too much chaos to give and update clear job descriptions for every one. The only way to prevent things slipping through the cracks is by people taking ownership above and beyond their role. Individuals that truly understand and exhibit this value in their work are also natural leaders. They tend to be the person that identifies issues and opportunities and then also inspires the troops by explaining the “why” and driving that improvement across the company.

Value transparency

Atlassian’s take on this core value is, “Open company, no bullshit.” In my opinion, it is the most exciting and well thought out among the tech giants. Transparency is essential because, fundamentally, the flow of information powers collaboration between individuals. Being transparent about rules, goals, progress, & difficulties will reduce the amount of redundant, duplicate, and unwanted work across all teams. Being open about issues and conflicts leads to better understanding and resolution within the company.

Transparency is not only about putting up dashboards, sending weekly reports, or company-wide townhalls. Transparency is much more than this. Transparency is being objective about the difficulties that plague your organization; it is acknowledging and addressing issues raised by the staff, it is about communicating the “why” in decision making, it is creating an environment that rewards people for being transparent. Most importantly, it is expressing beyond a shadow of a doubt, the vision, and the direction of the company going forward.

By valuing transparency, your company will foster a culture of diverse thinking and the sharing of different ideas. Individuals in your company will feel empowered to speak their minds and contribute to solving problems, and the best ideas will rise to the top. Transparent executives will explain the “why” in top-down decisions and reduce the amount of confusion, conflict, and resentment from staff.

Valuing transparency allows not only good ideas to be promoted; it also allows bad news, bad ideas, and bad decisions to be shared, discussed, challenged, or shot-down. If your organization is constantly making bad decisions, it is because individuals are often opaque. Transparent companies demonstrate respect towards their users and employees by being open to their intellectual opinions; thus, their users and employees will reciprocate that transparency and honesty.

It is important to note that being transparent does not give people a ticket to be arrogant or a bigot, please be open in your thinking but be mindful of when and how you deliver it.

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Play as a team (Teamwork & results-driven)

Many organizations misunderstand the “teamwork” value to be primarily about being helpful to one another and making up for each other’s deficiencies. I believe it is about overcoming hurdles as a team and working towards an agreed-upon result. Great teams aren’t soft. Great teams hold each other accountable. Great teams set high expectations for everyone.

Mutual respect between individuals is fundamental to creating great teams. To see if your company takes teamwork seriously, look at how executives treat staff; pay special attention to the treatment of interns, graduates, and minority groups. Look out for how management deliver critical feedback; are they using profane language? Are they making personal attacks that aim to belittle staff? Finally, pay attention to how individuals give positive feedback and the celebration of significant wins.

Another important aspect is the trust between individuals at the company; a dangerous trap to watch out for is a lack of trust between senior leaders and the people at the execution level. I’ve had to deal with this when my startup bought on 30 new staff very quickly and again at Freelancer when we hired many product managers and engineers in short succession. It is essential to explain the values, vision, processes patiently. Still, ultimately, it is up to the people who execute, and that is impossible unless the senior leaders learn to trust and let go.

“Play, as a team” is Atlassian’s take on the teamwork value; it has striking similarity with Freelancer’s version, which is “We are a pro sports team.” To play, we have to know what game we are playing, what field we are playing on, the rules, our teammates, their strengths and weaknesses, our opponents, how to score a goal, and ultimately what it looks like to WIN.

Knowing how to win is to be results-driven rather than output driven. To be results-driven means to aim towards an objective, quantifiable results such as “double sales of x over Q1 2020”. Conversely to be output-driven is more prescriptive and could be something like, “build a sales team of 15 in Delhi”. While both may end up ultimately with the same sales results, it’s obvious the benefits of being results-driven; the ability to adapt and change the playbook on the fly. On a related note, teams that are results-driven are informed by data and thus can objectively measure how they are tracking towards their goals without executives micro-managing and telling them what they need to be doing.

Once individuals understand the rules of the game and want to start to cooperate and play as a team, leaders will have to understand each individual’s strengths, weaknesses, potential, and motivation. Just like football, every member of the team has a role to play, and each role is unique, so you have to make sure the right people are in the right positions. When the individuals in your team understand their role, then they start paying attention to what opponents and competitors are doing in the space. Teams begin to understand collectively where the team’s strengths and weaknesses are and by extension, the potential and weaknesses of the product and service provided by the company.

Companies who live by this value foster an environment where individuals go out of their way to help and grow each other. Helping someone overcome a weakness or helping someone further their potential, are both critical in the growth of the individual, the team, and thus the company.

Finally, we all spend at least a third of every weekday working with one another so we should trust and respect each other. “Play, as a team,” so we can be happier, and do what’s right for the team, ultimately improving staff retention and thus the longevity and success of the business.

Photo by Austin Schmid on Unsplash

Where do your values align?

Great company culture can only be possible with a foundational and robust set of values. It is also the only way to create businesses that scale and endure, and that is why values eat culture for breakfast.

Do you believe in and align with the values of the company where you work or looking to work? Do the leaders live and breathe those values? Does the company celebrate those who exhibit the values in their work?

I hope you said yes to all those questions because that is a good litmus test to find out if you are at the right company. Being at a company that shares and celebrates values that matter to you will make your work fun, engaging, successful, and most important of all meaningful.

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The Startup

Tian Shou

Written by

Tian Shou

Director of Product at Founder CEO of gogosu, poker whiz, strategy nerd.

The Startup

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