Every company has their company values listed somewhere on their website. Usually, somewhere in the about section to give customers and prospective employees a formal understanding of the culture at your company and how you operate.
But is that useful information or is it a useless list of things people skim over on their way to fill out a job application or look for pricing?
I used to think it was the latter, but that’s because I had only seen ineffective ones, too hastily chosen, with little effort, and too generalized to help you identify the uniqueness that makes up the organization.
You know the kind I’m talking about:
- Customer Centric
- Blah blah blah
We wanted ours to showcase who we really are as a company, so we went about creating company values in a different way.
The Neverending Brainstorm
When our leadership team sat down a few years ago to craft our team values at Consensus, I thought it would be a 2 hour meeting. Wow was I wrong.
Unlike almost every other decision, I told the leadership team that in this case we would have to be unanimous in order to move forward because I wanted 100% buy-in.
The challenge was not so much in coming up with the values, but in naming them. Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Advantage, recommends using unusual memorable phrases to describe company values, which we thought was good advice.
An example he gave from one company was “willing to sweep floors”. That says a lot doesn’t it?
In my usual get-everything-done-fast mode, I blasted out a bunch of phrases before the meeting and proposed them to the team, expecting them to be bantered around a bit, tweaked, and then approved.
They all got scrapped. My heart sank, knowing that this was going to be a longer process than I felt I had time for.
We labored over every word. At one point I felt dismayed to discover, after a few weeks of meeting about this, that we were approving 1.9 words per hour.
I’m an English Lit undergrad and it felt like writing poetry as a group. Every word mattered. Talk about difficulty in group decision making!
It sometimes felt like a waste of time and it may sound like a useless exercise to some, but what we ended up with after about eight weeks, was a list of phrases that have been the bedrock of our culture for six years now (well, seven of them, and three were added a couple of years later) and they still ring true.
Here they are, not in any particular order:
- Bring authentic
- Version it, yesterday
- Take the driver’s seat
- Total ownership
- Total war
- No peace mongering
- Sprint. Recharge. Repeat.
- Show me the data
- Create wins
When we finished our list, I knew we had succeeded. 100% buy in. 100% a reflection of both who we are and who we aspire to be.
I’ve had several people ask me to share about our values more publicly. So I’m going to unpack these and further explain why we chose each of these phrases to represent our values. I hope they are helpful to at least some in getting to know Consensus, our team, and also to help any other startup founders as they progress on their journey.
- Bring Authentic – Intentionally bringing our “best selves” to work. We reject politics, gossip, and hidden agendas. We talk through problems respectfully, even when it seems uncomfortable. We let go of personal ego and agenda, but do our best to contribute real value, express honest opinions, and listen respectfully.
- Version it, Yesterday – Few things increase the likelihood of success for a startup more than velocity, so we take action as quickly as possible. We are light on process so we can move quickly.We believe that something worthwhile today is better than perfection months from now. We experiment often and get experiments out the door as quickly as possible. Processes we do put in place embrace agile thinking and methodology.
- Take the Driver’s Seat – Each team member is aware of where we are going and no one waits for a ride. Each of us exerts leadership in our role and accepts the responsibility of mapping out where we are going and how we will get there. We take accountability and don’t assume our manager or peers will accomplish the results we need. We focus on action and results and practice big thinking to keep our vision well ahead of the present moment.
- Total Ownership – We prize accountability because we know owning our outcomes means making a real contribution. We practice Total Ownership, even when we have zero control over the actions of others on whom our tasks or projects are dependent. This means we not only have a plan to succeed, but we also execute on a plan that makes it impossible to fail. We hold no one but ourselves responsible for outcomes and never defend actions, skill levels, models, systems, or relationships that aren’t getting the job done.
- Total War – Total War is our “no holds barred,” all out multi-threaded approach to winning. We commit to difficult tasks or projects, especially ones that have no apparent path to victory. We innovate on ways to ensure a successful outcome and we use every available resource, in parallel, to give us victory. Even if we’re fearful, we don’t hesitate to take the fight to the enemy, whether that “enemy” be a tough task or project, an uncomfortable but necessary conversation, or a high-quality competitor.
- No Peacemongering – Our objective is victory, not making others feel comfortable. We routinely engage in discomfort and ask the same of everyone around us. Our path to success is hard and we don’t hesitate to ask hard things of others. We are respectfully confrontational and ask direct accountability questions.
- Sprint. Recharge. Repeat. – We don’t believe in pursuing a constant state of balance–you cannot achieve great things without periodic sacrifices. Instead, to accomplish our vision we routinely need to sprint to get important projects over the finish line. This means making sacrifices, sometimes at the temporary cost of our personal lives. But we also recognize that doing this constantly causes burnout and could put at risk other aspects of life important to us. After we make a big push, we take time to recharge. This way we can accomplish great things while making sure we don’t jeopardize those things that are most important to us: our health, family, faith, and friendships. We recharge so we can sprint again with intense focus when it’s needed.
- Show Me The Data – Data doesn’t make decisions for us, but we look for data points to inform our decisions. Sometimes the data sample is large enough to be statistically relevant. Other times we have to make decisions based on anecdotal evidence. We pay attention to our ‘gut,’ but try to avoid making decisions based on ‘gut’ alone. We don’t avoid data points that suggest we’re on the wrong course, but instead embrace them, knowing that to succeed we need to face the facts and sometimes change course. We pursue the truth, no matter how difficult the truth may be.
- Create Wins – We aim to provide value in every interaction, whether our clients are interacting with us individually, our marketing materials, or our products and services. These wins are substantive and provide real value, not superficial hype. To provide real value we create experience after experience, moment after moment, of individual wins. When strung together, these individual moments form a chain of substantive value that produces trust, loyalty, and enthusiasm from our customers. While we always favor substance over style, we recognize that style and design are a critical part of a great experience.
- Teamify – We recognize the need for collaboration to produce the best result. We seek input and listen sincerely to disagreement. We’re in it for what truly works best, not to be “right”. This means we sometimes sacrifice our egos in favor of getting the best result. While success depends on each of us bringing our A game to our individual roles and responsibilities we’re willing and helpful in whatever way necessary for the whole team to win, even if it means helping on tasks that are well outside our job description.
Stating Values Matters
My view on stating company values changed. It was worth it. (But please don’t make me go back through that exercise again!)
At a recent All Hands meeting, Alex Edwards led a brilliant activity where everyone simultaneously drew pictures of team members who they think best represent that value on a virtual whiteboard. It was an incredible activity that not only reinforced the values for the people who make up our company, but it allowed us to recognize all the ways everyone exemplifies these standards each and every day.
You should try it; this is an incredible activity.