Finding the Company Culture You Already Have

Kathryn O'Day, COO at Rigor, shares her on-the-ground experience with company culture.

Have you heard about company culture or Core Values but aren’t sure where to start? Or maybe you think you have them but haven’t been able to articulate them? Or perhaps you have tried to introduce Core Values but they fell flat because they weren’t embraced by your team.

Core Values are a critical differentiator for all companies, especially high-growth startups. Core Values let you hire faster, make decisions faster, and increase alignment. They also instill a sense of pride and ownership among your team!

In 2015, Rigor wanted to clarify its Core Values. We used the Atlanta Ventures values of Positive, Supportive, and Self-Starting for several years. These values were still true but we had evolved a unique personality all our own. With 20 people, our company identity was taking shape and we wanted to put words to it.

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How do you uncover your company’s Core Values?

Here are the steps we took:

1. Send a company-wide survey asking about personal and professional values. What matters to people? What are their personal “north stars”?

Purpose: The survey triggered reflection on the topic of Core Values and we started to articulate what mattered to us.

2. Share answers (without names) company-wide.

Purpose: This generated awareness among Rigorians about what themes mattered to teammates. Keep it anonymous to prevent any bias and maintain privacy. It was an important lead in to...

3. Meet in small, cross-functional groups. Each group generates a proposal of 3-5 Core Values with short explanations for each. “Cross-functional” means a mix of roles, company tenure, personalities, and background.

Purpose: You now have several lists of employee-generated Core Values that resonate with and embody your team. Small groups mean it’s easier to reach agreement. The team has done the “heavy lifting” on the wordsmithing and definitions. Cross-functional means that there’s alignment regardless of role, background, or tenure. Bonus: It’s an amazing team-building activity.

4. The CEO reviews all proposed Core Values and edits to 5-8 “finalists” including tweaking language or explanations.

Purpose: The CEO must wholeheartedly agree with the Core Values and feel ownership since he or she will be driving adoption and leading by example. Plus, if you founded the company, you want the Core Values to be inspirational to you and inline with your own beliefs!

5. The CEO sends the Core Value “finalists” to the company and asks for 1:1 feedback via email. He or she can also solicit feedback from trusted advisors and company leaders.

Purpose: Sanity check and final feedback. Do these proposed values truly resonate with the team? Did we miss or misinterpret something important? This step gives your most passionate, invested employees a chance to have a say in the final product. The majority of employees will be happy with any of the 5-7 proposed values but it’s important to listen at every step. David Cummings did this when deciding Core Values for the Atlanta Tech Village.

6. The CEO announces the Core Values via email, at a company meeting, in person, everywhere!

Purpose: Celebrate and share the news.

#protips

  • Use your most organized leader to facilitate the process.
  • Explain the full process before starting. Clear communication about the process is critical to success!
  • Pre-plan the cross-functional groups.
  • Make your Core Values as action-oriented as possible. Core Values like “Own Your Work” or “Use Resources Wisely” are things you “do” rather than be. Encourage measurable actions not inherent qualities.
  • Action-oriented values also provide a framework for decision-making. They help answer questions like, “What should I do in this client situation?”
  • Create a documented version of the Core Values with explanations and definitions. It will be referenced often by your team as you grow.
  • Keep ‘em short.
  • Less is more. Rigor has 7 Core Values. We feel strongly about all of them but in a perfect world, it would be no more than 5.

Why This Process Works:

  • Every person in the company participates
  • Trends naturally emerge; no forcing or digging for your Core Values
  • No large group debates (rarely productive) or voting (majority doesn’t mean best overall product)
  • CEO has final say
  • When the values are announced, everyone sees several of “their” values
  • Lots of ideas from lots of places
  • Many ways for someone to contribute within their strengths (email, small group, survey)
  • Pre-work encourages reflection and thoughtfulness
  • Your quietest and loudest employee will both have opportunities to be heard

BUT WAIT….there’s more.

Defining your Core Values is only the first step. The hard work really begins when you start to incorporate your values into the fabric of your company. How do you encourage organic and authentic adoption of your Core Values? What are the keys to maintaining your Core Values as you grow? Stay tuned for more in our 3-part series on Core Values and company culture.