As I promised in a former piece, it’s time to talk about corporate values or as we call them at Yieldr, core values. I’ll preface this by restating something I’ve written before; culture isn’t something that can be created. It grows organically from the people that make up a space and the interactions they have with one another.
With that being said, when thinking about instituting core values, you should strive for a framework that allows this culture to flourish and evolve over time.
Those of you who have read my previous stuff know I like to keep it real. So I’ll walk you through what we did at Yieldr, how we did it, what we did well and what I think we should’ve done differently. This is by no means a how to guide or a best practice kind of piece, but I do hope you can draw some inspiration from what we’ve done at Yieldr and apply it to your own culture.
How The F@#% Do I Do This?
I was taking a leading role in defining our company’s values. As someone with a marketing background — other than some experience with internal communications — I was swimming in relatively uncharted waters. So I did what anyone in this position would do; I thought to myself — how the f@#% do I do this?
Luckily, I wasn’t doing this alone. I had the support of the entire supporters (management) board. So together, we dove right in and attempted to figure everything out along the way — an attitude that would become synonymous with our values.
The first thing we did was conduct a number of internal discussions. For us, this was developing at the perfect time. The conceptualization of our core values was happening in conjunction with hashing out our core purpose, long-term vision and defining our Big Hairy, Audacious Goals (BHAG).
We held a number of iron-sharpening sessions (more on that when we explain our core values) to decide the direction of our company, who we are and where we wanted to be.
We supplemented our own discussions with a lot of external research — both looking at how other companies define their values and reading a great deal of educational literature.
From the various content we consulted, we can highly recommend reading Building Your Company’s Vision from the Harvard Business Review. This is a great read for anyone in the process of building a sustainable framework for a company.
It was first important to start by deriving a definition of core values in which we could work from.
HBR defines core values as:
“The essential and enduring tenets of an organization. A small set of timeless guiding principles, core values require no external justification: they have intrinsic value and importance to those inside the organization.”
Once we settled on the intended purpose of our values, we then looked at a series of questions that HBR presented to help derive core values:
- What core values do you personally bring to work?
- What would you tell your children are the core values that you hold at work and that you hope they will hold when they be- come working adults?
- If you awoke tomorrow morning with enough money to retire for the rest of your life, would you continue to live those core values?
- Can you envision them being as valid for you 100 years from now as they are today?
- Would you want to hold those core values, even if at some point one or more of them became a competitive disadvantage?
- If you were to start a new organization tomorrow in a different line of work, what core values would you build into the new organization regardless of its industry?
These provided a great building block for us to look introspectively and start defining what was most important to us.
What We Came Up With
When we crafted our core values we wanted to strike just the right chord. There was a lot of passive observations with our team about what resonated with them, how we currently and historically operated and what was really the essence of Yieldr. We also spent some time thinking about where we wanted to be and what we needed to do in order to get there.
We wanted our values to work twofold — be true to who we are and what we always believed in, but also be aspirational enough to propel us forward as an organization. We were also careful to position these to be guiding principles — as HBR suggests — rather than a rigorous book of rules to “abide by or else.”
In the end, this is (the short version) of what we came up with:
Legs Feed the Wolf
A wolf does not eat simply by being a wolf. Talent alone will not propel us to greatness. We must put in the leg work and habitually improve ourselves in order to succeed.
Think Independently Together
One of our greatest assets at Yieldr is our diversity. We come together to leverage our uniqueness and find solutions to complex problems.
Life is an Echo
Whatever you put into the world comes back to you. So it goes without saying, treat everyone with dignity and respect and the same will be directed towards you.
Lead by Serving
True leaders are servants to the people and are selfless individuals. At Yieldr, no matter experience or function, we are all leaders, helping one another succeed.
Don’t Be a Monkey
Don’t do things just because they’ve always been done a certain way. The key to our survival is the ability to adapt and continually optimize everything we do.
The User Leads
At the heart of everything we do is the end user. Everything we do is done with the user in mind. By having a truly customer-centric approach, we’re able to build products that are loved.
Jump Off Cliffs
When we see an opportunity, we jump! We believe in learning by doing and “building our wings on the way down.” Sometimes this means stumbling, but we understand this only makes us stronger.
Answer the Bell
There’s never a challenge we don’t like. No matter the challenge, collectively or individually we never hesitate to rise to the occasion to conquer it. We never back down without putting up a fight.
Iron Sharpens Iron
We test our thoughts and ideas against one another to be the best we can be. We understand through feedback, we become stronger.
The Good, The Bad & The Sarcastic
Now this is the part where we get 100% real. When going through this sort of process, you need to look at yourself in the mirror and give an honest assessment.
The first thing you probably noticed is the amount of values — we have NINE of these things!!! I know what you’re thinking, how can your values be Core if you have nine of them? And, you’re totally right.
We didn’t start out to have nine, but along the way what happened was, we began to think; “wait we need to include this,” or “aren’t we forgetting about that?” This created a snowball effect, and we weren’t satisfied until we felt that all of our themes were accounted for.
In some cases — I won’t specify which ones in order to maintain their integrity — a few of the values felt like add-ons or at least could’ve been rolled into other core values.
I also think our core values could’ve been a bit more direct. Maybe the marketing side came out in me as I tried to be overly creative with the naming of our core values instead of being straightforward. Some organizations even define their values with single words.
As you can see, most of our values require an explanation before you can understand it. For example, Don’t Be a Monkey is a take on the Parable of the Five Monkeys, and Legs Feed the Wolf is a term made famous by former U.S. Olympic Hockey Coach Herb Brooks.
This brings me to my next point. I tried my best to find a variety of sources to derive our values from, but it’s very difficult to go beyond your own biases, especially when it comes to finding inspiration. One of the criticisms I received were the core values were “too American” or “too sports-heavy.”
While I do agree that some of the examples were inspired by the sports world and my own background, I do think all of our core values are universal and can be applied to a number of any interests and areas of life.
But let’s not be overly pessimistic. It’s also worth pointing out what we did well. What I really loved is we went all in with our core values. We even have them painted on our wall! This serves as a constant reminder for us as we go about our day-to-day business.
We didn’t just publish them, put them on the wall and forget them though. We intrinsically made them a part of our work. We set objectives and key results around them, we’ve held core value themed events, produced content around them and have conducted activities aligned with our core values.
We’ve also made our core values a focal point when it comes to talent management. Mining for a cultural fit and discovering how our candidates relate to our values are integral parts of our interviewing process, and measuring our incumbent team against our values is a part of our quarterly reviews. We’re also very excited to eventually publish our new careers page highlighting our values.
I think this is an important point:
For core values to be adopted, they need to be a living, breathing entity and not just a bulleted list stored somewhere.
Now this is something we haven’t done perfectly and is an area we are continuously improving, but this has been an important part of integrating our values.
Something else we learned from observing our team was that you can’t take yourself too seriously. Especially early on, our core values were used as an instrument for sarcasm. For example, if someone was doing something thoughtless, someone would jeer, “that’s monkey behavior!”
Or one of my favorite anecdotes goes something like this; a supporter (what we refer to as a people manager), was making himself a sandwich and his teammate chimed in, “why don’t you make me a sandwich too?… you know, lead by serving!”
Then we have the whole matter of Jumping Off Cliffs being synonymous with someone leaving the company 🙃
While some might find this type of behavior irritating if not downright disrespectful, it should actually be viewed positively. At least the team knows enough about our values to apply them to witty clapbacks.
And in the end, you just need to have a little fun with the whole thing, especially if this is part of your culture — and this type of sibling-like razzing is certainly a big part of the Yieldr family 😜
Just remember, your values should support your culture and your culture should support your values.
I understand there is a lot to digest here so let’s round things up with a recap:
- Understand the definition and purpose of core values and how they fit into your organization
- Do a self diagnosis of your company — taking into account of both where you currently are and where you want to be
- Aim for timeless values that you also hold near and dear personally, separated from company strategy
- Position your values as guiding principles instead of a rigid set of rules
- Keep your core values truly core by limiting the amount of them
- Draw inspiration from diverse sources and try to eliminate any biases
- Intrinsically integrate your values into your organization by engaging with them
- Don’t forget to have a little fun and not take it too seriously
While our execution was not perfect — and we’re always improving — we’re happy with what we ended up with. It’s really rewarding to see something go from boardroom discussions to actually being put to practice and used by your team.