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Starting an open and honest dialogue with your employees can be a scary thing, especially if you haven’t done so before. However, it’s these types of difficult conversations that provide the most value to you and your team in the long run. Speaking to your employees about the company and its direction can work wonders to boost team morale, help identify organizational improvements and lay the foundation for an honest and collaborative culture that will last for years to come.
A few years after founding my company, it quickly became clear to me that we needed to pause and reflect on the company culture we had established to date, and the values that would propel our company’s future growth. Most of all, I wanted to ensure that we didn’t lose the essence of a small, scrappy company that was reaching for the stars, and that we were upholding values that were dear to the employees as we moved forward.
It was important that the values weren’t built with a top-down approach, but instead came from employees who felt personal ownership and investment in the organization’s DNA.
Value creation exercise
While every year we host a company mountain retreat, the one in 2019 had an unexpected twist — attendees would be defining and solidifying the company values for years to come. To do this, we split employees and their partners into groups, gave them sticky notes and magic-markers, and asked them to write two things:
The values they think we have that they don’t want to lose
Values we should adopt or be expressing more
At this point, we had no idea what to expect. But the results were astonishing. This exercise went on to become an extremely meaningful and pivotal moment for the future of the company.
When the employees and their partners presented and shared the values they wrote down during the exercise, I was both stunned and humbled. With all of the groups working independently, they each came up with extremely specific and consistent values and themes. It proved that we were already living these values as a company, even before writing them down. Not only did the employees understand what was important, but so did their families — which ultimately proved our alignment both within the company and how we showcase our values to the outside world.
One key value that particularly stood out to me was “choose growth over comfort.” For most, stability is the name of the game when it comes to a place of work, but the alignment reaffirmed that everyone at the retreat was ready to push the envelope and reach outside of their comfort zone to do great things.
Another value that always has and will remain a cornerstone is to “value the whole person.” Every single group shared this exact value, worded this specifically. Evidently, they’ve heard it said and seen it expressed enough times to recognize that we care about not just what they do, but who they are and who is in their lives outside of work. It meant so much to me that my team and their partners understood how much they each meant to the company.
Ensuring your employees feel valued is a no-brainer, but performing exercises such as these demonstrates how their feedback is not only being heard, is also being used to guide the company’s vision and future.
Following the values exercise and retreat, the leadership team and I sat down and condensed all of the results into five company values. Since then, we have used these values in every aspect of the company, from setting priorities and making decisions, to guiding day-to-day interactions, bringing on new hires, coaching our staff and as 30% of our performance review ratings. Best of all, everyone was in complete agreement with how these should be expressed in our work. Value is nothing if you don’t articulate the associated behaviors.
Now, we rarely have an “all hands” team meeting where the company values are not considered and intentionally incorporated through a formal exercise. It initially surprises our clients, but they come to love how we also weave these exercises into customer onboarding. Sometimes we take 10-15 minutes of an onboarding session with 25 people to help the employees of a new client get to know each other better. It’s beautiful to see people that have worked together for years grow in valuing each other through a first meeting with their new vendor. This demonstrates to our team and every partner or customer that works with us that values are not just words on a website. They express who we are and aspire to be.
Advice for business leaders
When you establish strong values and culture at your company, your team has to own them as much as you want them expressed. As a business leader, you need to demonstrate a regular commitment to living the values yourself, or else they’re just words on a wall. Once you commit the time to them, employees will begin to feel connected and empowered to own them as well. If there is no personal ownership, it is fruitless.
I didn’t write this to prescribe how to form your company values, or culture, but I did want to describe how much the intentionality of leaders applied to the purpose of personal ownership can transform your company. If you ask your team why they work at your organization, don’t you want the first things mentioned to be what you stand for and how you treat people more than their paycheck? If they see value in your values, that’s exactly what you’ll hear.