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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.