Why it’s crucial to examine values from the start

When I was working as a web content strategist, I had a terrible boss.

There was a clash between what was important to me and how the company was run: I wanted to do creative projects that focused on storytelling and content marketing while the boss would take any web-related job that came along. I wanted to take time off when I wasn‘t busy or at the end of a project, but that never seemed to happen. I wanted to explore innovative ways of working, but there was no system in place to allow that experimentation, so I had to show up to the office and stick to basics like using email for all communication. I never had a real sense of what the organization stood for.

Lots of people have no doubt been in similar situations, but my particular tragedy was that I was working for myself. At least I learned a very valuable lesson: organizations have a culture that effects everything they do, and this is especially true if the organization has never even thought about what that culture should be (and even when there’s only one person working there).

Tony Hsieh of Zappos is clear on the importance of stating values in helping define a company’s culture:

Even though our core values guide us in everything we do today, we didn’t actually have any formal core values for the first six or seven years of the company’s history. . .

I’m just glad that an employee finally convinced me that it was necessary to come up with core values — essentially, a formalized definition of our culture — in order for us to continue to scale and grow.

I only wish we had done it sooner.

This is not to say Zappos didn‘t have a corporate culture or values before they were explored in the open and stated. They certainly did, but they were hidden and assumed, which is the case in most organizations. And in lieu of stated values and a culture that’s considered and worked on, you often get a mess of unstated expectations and assumptions that helps nobody: an unintentional culture.

What Is a Corporate Culture?

Think of it as the company‘s DNA — the code embedded throughout its structure which diatates pretty much everything it does. The jobs it goes for, the prices it sets, how it does the work, treats its employees, what procedures it puts in place.

Inc.com defines it as:

the shared values, attitudes, standards, and beliefs that characterize members of an organization and define its nature. Corporate culture is rooted in an organization’s goals, strategies, structure, and approaches to labor, customers, investors, and the greater community. As such, it is an essential component in any business’s ultimate success or failure

A lot of organizations make a fuss about their mission statements, but how they actually do business is often in stark contrast to that high-flown language. A clear statement of values can be more useful in providing guidance, and in helping to determine the culture of an organization.

No Overt Culture is still a Culture

When there’s no discussion about all this stuff, then as we’ve seen in other areas like having a physical office, inertia often wins out. The hidden and assumed values of the founders and bosses become the de facto culture of the organization, and they’re much harder to change because they are never really discussed. This is particularly true when it comes to progressive work practices and approaches.

If the boss has never even considered the idea of working as a remote team, or adopting a results-only work environment, then you’ve got almost no chance of making progress on these measures.

As Frederic Laloux points out in his book Reinventing Organizations,

‘an organization cannot evolve beyond its leadership’s stage of development’.

With non-profits, for example, there’s often a great mismatch between the progressive nature of their programs and the regressive way they go about them. Often, people who want to bring about important changes in the world never stop to think about how they’re going to do that. This is partly due to the tyranny of the notion of controlling operating expenses (see here for Dan Pallotta’s great takedown of that canard), and partly because of the unspoken idea that non-profit workers should somehow suffer for their good work. As if the work itself — however badly they’re asked to do it — should be motivation enough.

Most people start organizations because they want to make progress on whatever the organization does, whether it’s a non-profit or not — painters gonna paint, bakers gonna bake, if you will. It’s a rare person who is driven both to create an organization from scratch, and to consider how that organization should work.

So if you’re starting a business, time spent early on defining what you will and won’t do, how you want to treat your staff and partners, and what really matters to the organization will make a host of other decisions so much easier later. Who and how you hire, where and how you work, even down to how you handle customer complaints should all be seen chances for the organization to manifest its values.

If you’re looking for a job, then you should be mildly interested in the mission statement of any prospective employer, but pore over the company’s stated values very carefully — and look for signs they were being implemented. Netflix’s famous slidedeck is a great example of this.

You should also spend time working out what your personal values are, especially as they relate to work. Otherwise, you won’t be able to see if there’s a match.

And be careful if there’s no clear set of values — an unplanned culture can be the worst type of culture of all.