I’m only a few months into my journey as a startup founder, and I am surprised by how many conversations I’ve had explicitly discussing my values. I am not surprised to be having conversations guided by my values. I planned for that. But I have been more than pleasantly surprised about how much other people want to discuss these values as well.
You see, before I knew what business I wanted to build, I sat down and thought about how I wanted to build it.
The company culture that grows from its founders’ values can make or break a business. I have seen it many times in my career. By starting out mapping how I want to do business, I knew I’d give my new venture a strong and solid place to begin.
Start with values before a business idea
Company values have always been fundamental to me. In my first job, I helped organise our company values process. I saw up close how powerful and sometimes challenging it can be to bring an organisation together for a candid, direct conversation about what people think is essential.
During that time, one of my bosses described values as, “If the newest and most junior member of staff was working alone and needed to make a decision, they should be able to do so based on our values. If they are in the office alone in the evening, they should know – even if they haven’t read the expense policy yet – that we want them to expense a cab home because we value their safety.”
That notion has stuck with me and framed how I think today about values and company culture. I have been responsible for leading and introducing core values at all the companies I have worked. I have also coached other companies through the process. I have seen how values can bring companies together and drive them forward to success. Conversely, I have also witnessed how damaging it can be when leaders can’t live up to those values.
Value lived but not shown
The damage caused by a leader proclaiming the company cares about one thing but then consistently behaving differently is one of the few organisational challenges that can’t be overcome.
As leaders, we can’t live up to the standards we set if we don’t first examine our own core values and non-negotiables. I believe the development and review of values is an inclusive activity across the whole organisation. But it needs to be led by the founders and leaders of the company. And it must ring profoundly true to them.
The second problem is when you set a value and you live it, but your team can’t see it.
Take the example of the value of BOLDNESS. How about that CEO who values boldness yet is personally an introvert? They may make solid, strategic decisions through quiet contemplation? It doesn’t mean they’re not bold in their ideas or the direction for the company. But it does make it tough for other people to see their ideas and actions as bold. And that’s dangerous when people can’t SEE the CEO living it, because they’ll assume, they don’t need to either.
People care a lot more about your values than you think.
Earlier this week, I was talking about Highliner to a potential client. We spent a lot of time discussing the product and how we provide personalised leadership support to managers. We spoke about how our technology works, the experts that feed into our content and how we deliver and measure results. But then, just as I thought I was hitting my stride, their tech leader jumped in and said, “Wait, I get what you’re building, but not why you’re building this?” He wanted to know about our values.
Lesson learned for future pitches! Make sure to share a passion and vision. Highliner values people as “works in progress.” One of my core beliefs is that not only are none of us perfect but that we all have a tremendous capacity to learn, grow and develop. With this context suddenly the “why” we were building our product made a lot more sense. We were a lot more credible team to deliver it.
The magnet effect
Building a company, particularly a fast scaling one, is demanding in many ways. Many people will challenge you along the way, and your values are like road signs for you and your business. I set out my values from the start as a way to give me and my team a strong foundation and to build the right company culture from the start. What I have already seen though is that my values are not just signs guiding us but also signs directing others to us.