As we pointed out in previous posts this month, every company has a culture—whether they know it or not. That culture might not be a great one or even a good one, but it definitely exists. If that’s the case, then why are so many people unsure about their companies’ cultures? I’m guessing that 1.) from the employees’ perspective it’s not a great place to work, so they assume there is no culture, or 2.) no one has defined it—and if no one has defined it, then how can anyone be sure of what it is?

 Let’s consider your practice. Do you fall into one of the two categories above? If it’s number one, that’s no bueno, but we’ll discuss taking your culture from bad to good later this week. If it’s number two, great. That’s what we’re going to tackle today: defining company culture.

Core Values: The Key to Company Culture
In an article on Forbes, Kevon Saber, co-founder and CEO of Fig, explains that any company’s culture stems from the founder’s (or founders’) values. These values are the core of your company, and as such, they’re the key to creating a real company culture, one that truly, authentically resonates. They’re your standards, and as this 7 Geese post explains, they help you make decisions about your business, educate clients and prospects about who you are as a company, and recruit and retain employees.  

 Developing Your Values
While Saber doesn’t have a universal formula for determining one’s values, he did offer three questions that helped him determine his own:

  1. When have I felt most alive?
  2. What behaviors stir up intensely negative reactions in me?
  3. Are there narratives I hold sacred or value systems I can borrow from?

In addition to answering the questions above, it’s crucial that you decide who you wish to be in the world—what kind of company, what kind of employer, what kind of partner, director, provider—and how you’re going to go about fulfilling that role. You may have thought about this before, but put it all—including your answers to the above three questions—on paper, on a whiteboard, or on whatever you use for brainstorming. This is you pouring out your soul, and in doing so, you’ll start to notice themes, patterns, and key terms.

Now, rope in your core staff, the people who have helped you build your practice. Walk them through your thoughts, get their feedback, and evolve your answers. Just make sure everything is honest and pure. As Jim Collins’s article Aligning Action and Values explains, “you cannot ‘set’ organizational values, you can only discover them.” During this group brainstorming session, no one should pluck values out of thin air—ones that they simply want, believe they should have, or think are cool. Instead, devote this process to being genuine and real. To help facilitate that, ask your key staff these questions from 7 Geese:

  • Are the core values essential and applicable whether or not the company rewards the behaviors associated with them?
  • If you woke up tomorrow morning with enough money to retire for the rest of your life, would you continue to hold on to these core values?
  • Can you envision these values being as valid 100 years from now as they are today?
  • Would you want the organization to continue to hold these values, even if at some point, they became a competitive disadvantage?
  • If you were to start a new organization tomorrow in a different line of work, would you build these values into the new organization regardless of its activities?

One last question to consider (this time from the site Delivering Happiness): Are you willing to hire and fire people based on whether they fit your core values, even if an employee adds a lot of value in the short-term?

Choosing Your Values
Together with your core team, pluck out the themes and boil them down to their sincerest form. Your values will emerge. Several things to consider during this process:

  • Make sure your values are values—not vibes. In “Startup Culture: Values vs. Vibe,” author Chris Moody explains that “Vibe represents the emotional side of the company. Like all emotions, vibe can be fairly volatile and is highly influenced by outside factors.” Alternatively, core values are timeless; unaffected by competitors, customers, or the market; and sustainable.
  • Ensure your values are not simply perks. As 7 Geese’s “Why Having a Keg in Your Office Does Not Create a Strong Company Culture” notes, “free snacks, food, beer, whiskey, game room, music room, nap room, and ping pong tables” do not create a strong company culture. Perks are nice, and they certainly are telling of a company’s culture, but they are not the culture in and of itself.
  • Make your core values into verb phrases. Your core values are what you and your team live by, so they should be succinct action statements—and thus, should contain more than one word.
  • Embrace your practice’s distinct qualities. Everyone can say: “Be accountable,” but how does your company say it—live it—in its own way? (For example, WebPT says “F up. Own up.”) As Tim Cadogan, CEO of OpenX, says, “This makes the values more relatable and reinforces whatever is unique about the culture.”
  • Limit your values. They’re your identity, your practice’s essence. They shouldn’t be everything to everyone. Furthermore, they should be memorable. As John DeHart, co-founder of Nurse Next Door, recommends, aim for fewer than ten.

Defining Your Values
In this Inc. article, Next Step Publishing Founder David Mammano shares his value creation process: “I asked my team to discuss what makes us special and unique, and what’s important to us. Some common themes emerged. But we didn’t stop there because we didn’t want to be one of those companies that have their core values posted all over the office while nobody really knew what they meant. So we held more meetings and asked the team to give examples of what they thought it would actually mean for a Next Step employee to exhibit each core value. Our mission was clarity around each value.”

After you’ve established your core values, take Mammano’s advice and rudimentarily define them. How do your core values translate into what you do in work and life? How do they carry over to or manifest in your employees? These rough, or initial, definitions wrap up your brainstorm. Now, it’s time to document your values and their definitions into a well-written, easily distributable format. Tune in tomorrow for a discussion on how to establish your company culture by documenting your core values.