Quick–can you tell me your company’s values? If you hesitated, chances are your organization can do a better job of articulating what matters to its employees and defining the why of what you do every day.
You see, many companies talk about culture, but very few take the actions necessary to make their values work in practice to help your organization grow. Below are three questions to help your leadership team determine whether your company values are actually working:
1. Can your newest and most junior employees recite your values?
To me, this is the single greatest litmus test of a company’s values. Chances are, your CEO and your leadership team can recite what matters to your organization, but for values to truly inform behavior, your employees need to learn them and actually live them, so if your newest and most junior employees can’t articulate them, you have work to do–either by reworking your values to be relevant to your entire employee population or by more effectively communicating and leading by example on what those values are and why they matter.
If you haven’t asked this question lately, don’t assume your employees can answer it. Take a handful of employees to coffee and ask them not just what the values are but whether they feel relevant to their day to day work. If the answer is no, consider asking for their input on how you could make your values more visible, more connected to their work, and more visible for your candidates and employees on a daily basis.
2. Do your values distinguish you from your competitors?
When customers purchase your product, they aren’t just buying your software or goods–they are investing in your team and the people you employ. So if you covered up your company name on a poster articulating your values, could a customer or prospect discern the values that inspire your employees every day? If the values could describe those of a yoga studio down the street or one of your competitors, you have to go back to the drawing board.
Simply put, if your values don’t help someone decide when making a purchase decision, they aren’t good enough. One of the best examples of bringing values to life in a company setting is Patagonia. Every brand touchpoint from their website to their retail employees conveys a genuine interest in the great outdoors, and their activism as a company, hiring practices, and even their manufacturing processes are all driven and rooted in their values as an organization. So if your values poster could be on the wall at your biggest competitor, it’s time to edit them–your values are only as good as the behavior they inspire in your employees and the trust they build with your customers.
3. Do your values help inform behavior when you’re not in the room?
Your values are not just a recruiting tool–they are a commitment that helps your culture scale as you grow. But in order to truly make that happen, your values need to inform behavior. Let’s say for example that a customer and your boss both ask for something from an employee–who should he or she help first? Your employees make hundreds if not thousands of decisions each day without you in the room, so if your values don’t actually inform behavior, they miss the mark. For example, “do good work” sounds nice and straight-forward, but I’ve never met a company that wants bad work, so it doesn’t help employees make tough decisions or your recruiters make a hard call on a borderline candidate.
Being more explicit in what matters to you is critical in cultivating values that work, so ask yourself if in a tough decision, what you stand for would help your managers and leaders make a tough call without your direct input. Basecamp, formerly 37 Signals, is a remote-first software company and proof that you don’t need to be a big consumer brand to have values that resonate. One of Basecamp’s values as an organization is simplicity, which helps inform how products are built, how processes scale, and how management and leadership choices are established. As an employee, that would help me simplify features before shipping them, while as a customer I would know what to expect from the organization’s pricing, approach and strategy.
Winning values inspire your customers, galvanize your team, and inform behavior for your employees and managers. If your company falls short on any of the three questions above, it’s time to go back to the drawing board–the time it takes to rework, remarket, and review your values will pay dividends for your customers, your team, and your company for many years to come.