Last year, I had the startling realization that I no longer knew every one of my employees’ names. After spending a decade building a company with my cofounder (and our employees), this was a bittersweet moment. I was proud of the startup’s growth, but also felt nostalgic and a little worried about what this meant for our company culture.
The warm and fuzzy culture stuff doesn’t seem as important in the early days of building a company, when you are just trying to survive. Many founders, myself included, assume that if you hire the right people and treat them well, the culture will be just fine. However, at a certain point in the company’s growth, perhaps once you stop knowing everyone’s name, this assumption is no longer true.
How can you feel confident that your desired “culture” and “values” are being upheld if you have never successfully named them?
My inability to name my employees was my aha! moment when I knew we had to formalize our core values and invest real time and energy into articulating our culture. This effort had to extend beyond good benefits and a company happy hour each month.
So, I embarked on a yearlong effort to define our core values and bring them to life. And I learned a lot along the way. Here is the six-step process we went through and the revelations that resulted, which other founders may find useful.
1. What are our core values?
The first step is to define core values -- why they are important and what you hope to achieve with them. Core values are the essence of your company’s identity. They are your principles, philosophy and culture, your brand and voice and what you stand for with your employees and customers alike. Core values are also the compass that helps you make hard decisions, that resonate with you personally. Core values are not optional but rather persist as the company evolves, and last through both boom and bust.
2. Draft your core values.
Core values will not be the same for every company, so it's important to come up with your own. They need to be genuine. Don’t just throw some feel-good words down on paper and call it a day. Take the time to articulate the principles that underlie your company and will guide it toward success. The more concise the values, the better. (Note: using compound values to make your list “shorter” is cheating.)
If people can’t recall and recite the values, that defeats the purpose. Just because you don’t list “integrity” as a core value does not mean you do not value or posses integrity. Focus on superlatives and differentiators.
I started my own list by digging out discarded "values" notes from over the years -- about 25 in total. Next, I found inspiration by looking at what other companies -- Zappos, Google, Rackspace, Facebook, Amazon, Airbnb, eBay and Zipcar -- were doing. I also asked for input from my cofounder and our employees, since defining core values should be a collaborative process. Get employees involved; don't hand down the values as an edict. Together, we whittled the list down to nine core values.
Related: Why Core Values Drive Business
3. Test the values with employees.
The third step was to go over the values with employees, which I did in four or five team sessions, over lunch. With cross-functional groups of six-to-eight employees to a group, I explained the core values and asked for feedback. My central question was not, “What do you think of these?” but rather, “Tell me some examples of when you have experienced or witnessed these values being upheld or violated at the company.” This was key in calibrating which values were real, versus aspirational. Armed with this feedback, I narrowed the list of nine core values down to our final four.
4. Leverage examples
For the core values to be living, breathing ideas that run throughout an organization, focus on anchoring them in real-world experiences. When developing, refining and sharing your core values with your team, brainstorm actual anecdotes of how those values have been reflected in the company. This will help you move them from “culture fluff” to fully-formed values that will provide everyone in your company with a sense of belonging and shared purpose.
5. Make a video.
With your list of values and examples to support them, your next step is to create a digestible and meaningful way to share those values with everyone in the company. To this end, we made a video ( which you can check out here). The process itself was fun and the team really enjoyed the video's big debut. As an added bonus, a video makes for excellent recruiting collateral.
6. Talk about your values at every opportunity.
To make core values stick, weave them into everyday moments whenever possible. For example, start off every company meeting with a slide of the core values. Ask every person you interview specific questions to determine whether they subscribe to your values. Adorn every conference room with a core-value (or values) sign, and of course, post the list on your website and other web properties. Ultimately, the best way to make all of this stick is to find “learning opportunities” and celebrate instances of employees living up to your core values.
Such tactics serve to ingrain your core values so deeply into an organization that they inform small choices and major strategic decisions alike. Going through this process will promote employee satisfaction and productivity, and make your company stronger than ever. Speaking from personal experience, I can honestly say: Don't wait nine years to start your own journey.