When I started my latest venture, I knew I wanted to create a values-driven startup, but wondered “How can articulated values avoid feeling lifeless or patronizing?”
Values are the assumptions that drive thinking and action, and the character and behavioral aspirations leadership believes will serve the company’s mission.
Every company has values. Are they explicit or implicit? Are they serving the mission and team or not? In my experience a startup’s relationship to its values usually falls into one of the following groups:
1) Lip service: There is almost no relationship between what is written on company badges or conference room walls and the common assumptions and every day behaviors of team members. Sometimes the disconnect is the result of an aspirational few without trying to steer the culture. This was certainly the case at one of the companies I helped start. During the interview process, talented mobile developers who had their pick among startups told me our company was their top choice because of our values. Those same values were distasteful a few months later when these newly recruited team members realized they weren’t shared by all of the company’s leaders.
2) Verbally unexpressed, but tangible nonetheless: Here values are expressed through who gets hired, fired, promoted, and what initiatives are funded and and celebrated. This approach is way better than lip service, but hard for potential team members to self-select on and new team members to assimilate into. Another company I helped start fell into this bucket. New team members who had been at the company for a few months knew they were expected to make the sale, have fun, and do right. Sadly, these values were not explicated, and this lack of definition left the values with little staying power after most of the founders left. After 11 years the trust and reciprocity that catapulted the company to success in its early years had eroded to nil.
3) Intentionally expressed in more than words: This is hard in practice. It takes deep consciousness on the part of leaders to give the defined values gravitas. Aligning strategy, decisions, and metrics with values requires additional time and emotional energy. It also opens the company up to both constructive and unfounded criticism.
Attending to values is a distraction if you intend to flip the company in 12 months. However, if you strive to build an enduring company, there are few tools more powerful than values intentionally expressed and regularly enforced. Here are some of the reasons our team at my latest startup is working hard to live our values:
Authentic and defined values foster alignment and well-being:
- Potential team members and partners (e.g. investors) can self-select
- Enhanced clarity empowers team members to create with confidence
- Efficient conflict-resolution tool
- Potential for culture-brand-product alignment
- Certain values promote flourishing (e.g. Douglas North won a Nobel prize for proving how values influence standards of living, one dimension of flourishing)
In a future posts I’ll share how I discovered my own values, and how my current team is trying to lean into our values with authenticity and consciousness.
Jay Sears‘ ”final remarks” were a highlight of the weekend. Jay shared them with everyone who attended as though his lease on life were about to expire. I share them here with Jay’s permission in hopes they inspire you to live with greater intentionality in 2012:
“These are my final remarks to my wife, and wisdom to my children and my, yet unborn grandchildren. Maybe some of these words may resonate with you.
But success came at a price; the energy that fueled that success, was largely a case of misplaced energy. I thought that I could squeeze more into a day and still have all of that quality time with my wife and kids, but as you know, it didn’t work that way. We make calendar choices very day; and something wins your time and someone loses your time. And you don’t get a do-over; life moves on.
Success alone doesn’t make you feel good about yourself. I learned way too late, that I feel best about myself when I can use my time, talent and treasure to uplift others and maybe help change the trajectory of their lives.
Don’t wait to be secure and successful, before you make a difference in people’s lives. You may end up achieving neither.
Be guided by hope and not by fear, but don’t be stupid, be prepared! As you always heard me say, luck happens when preparation meets opportunity.
But don’t be afraid to fail. I failed big and often, and my failures were my greatest learning experiences.
Solicit input from opposing voices. It is possible that, in spite of your brilliant education and resume, that you are wrong.
Build a reputation upon a core of strong values and character and defend it fiercely. It will be your greatest asset. Make hand shake deals and stick to them.
Be a do’er. The world has enough academics; put your dreams and passions into action and build something that you and your family can be proud of.
But don’t let money and wealth be your goal. These are bi-products of success, not the measure of success.
Find great partners for business and life, and be a great partner. In business, it is much more enjoyable to share the experience with a partner. You also realize along the way, that you couldn’t have done it yourself anyway.
In life, be a great partner to your spouse, you both married well. I married way over my head and I failed to appreciate her in so many ways. I had planned to spend my second half making it up to her; don’t make the same mistake.
Take care of your mother, she devoted 25 years of her life to guiding you through the challenges of your childhood. She modeled a life of the highest values, unconditional love and compassion for the powerless.
I regret that I seem to have run out of time; I was quite sure that the best was yet to come.
Live large, but always do what your mother tells you to do.
I love you all,