Entrepreneurs have plenty on their minds, especially as they’re first starting up their businesses. Often it’s enough of a challenge just to stay profitable and keep growing.
Maybe that’s why some leaders treat things like company values and culture more like afterthoughts than top priorities.
But whether or not leaders pay attention to company culture, culture will develop. Just like all people have personal values and unique personalities that inform their decisions and behavior, business’ values will influence how employees, customers, and other shareholders are treated.
Of course, the way employees, customers, and other shareholders are treated has a huge impact on whether or not a business will ultimately succeed.
That’s why leaders have to be intentional about establishing and reinforcing company values that will go on to build a strong company culture. They can start by taking these important steps.
Deliberately Choose Official Organizational Values
Deliberately naming your values may seem like an obvious step, but it’s an important one that too many leaders skip.
Some leaders expect their employees to assume what appropriate behavior looks like, or maybe even mention values and goals during meetings in a more informal way without committing to an official list.
But, again, if leaders aren’t clear about a company’s values, the culture may develop around values other than the ones they may have intended.
At The Receptionist, we used the Entrepreneurial Operating System to really drill down to which company values were the most important to us. We discuss that process here on our podcast. We took the process seriously. All of our leadership team were heavily involved, and we spent many, many hours deliberating on what values make us who we are.
If you don’t have that kind of energy to invest right now, you can keep things simpler by just choosing a few values at first, keeping in mind it’s OK if your values evolve over time.
We believe that our initial investment of time and energy was well worth it. A clear list of values cuts down on conflict because our decisions are always made through the lens of those values. Hiring, onboarding, and firing all become much easier, too, because our values are crystal clear. Perhaps most importantly, a clear list of values shows that you know what you want to accomplish as a team.
Make the Values Easy to Remember
Your employees have a lot to remember just to get their work done each day. Don’t make things more difficult by presenting a convoluted list of vague values to memorize.
We suggest sticking to a list of five to seven values to provide a solid sense of character without making the list too overwhelming.
It also helps to use an acronym to sum up the values and make them easier to remember. It took us a while of playing around with crossword puzzle apps to figure out the acronym FABRIC to sum up our own values (Fun, Authentic, Bold, Respectful, Innovative, and Collaborative). But now, thanks to that simple acronym, the values have stuck — and everyone can use the term “fabric” as a shorthand term to refer to our culture and values.
Include Clear Examples of Value-Aligned Behavior
Naming your company’s official values is just the first step. Part of a leader’s most important work in culture building is defining what values look like in action.
As we wrote in our post What Respect at Work Looks Like at The Receptionist, the meaning of a value like “respect” may seem clear at first. However, in practice, the word may mean very different things to different people.
For example, at one company, respect might mean making sure everyone is offered a seat at most meetings in the name of equality and inclusion. At others, it might mean slimming down meeting invites as ruthlessly as possible to make sure peoples’ time is always respected as much as possible (by the way, we take the latter approach).
In your official values statement, you can include a few examples of behaviors that align with your values, or instances in which these values can stand out the most. However, it’s even more important that leaders show what the stated values mean in their daily actions, as we’ll discuss next.
Do More Than Pay Lip Service
There are plenty of disgraced executives who did all their dirty work under official employment policies that mandated respect and integrity. Of course, those policies certainly didn’t stop them from behaving badly.
The fact is that no matter what official value statements say, an organization’s culture often forms as a direct result of how its leaders act. The behavior that leaders exhibit and the behavior they tolerate sends the clearest message of all to employees about what they value.
For example, if a leader says they value authenticity and directness but balks whenever their ideas are criticized, employees will take the hint and stop sharing their thoughts candidly. If they say they value respect and that means no yelling in meetings but fail to call out that behavior when it happens right in front of them, their stated values aren’t worth much.
By the way, reactions and responses include all communicated messages, not all of which are written and verbal. For example, if you say out loud that you welcome feedback and even thank people for it, but cross your arms and refuse eye contact while that person is delivering criticism, the message will still come across clearly that conflicting opinions are not welcome. And if you laugh at examples of behavior that’s supposed to be against company values, you’re sending the message that the values are just for show.
The Importance of Good Leadership
It’s not easy to act in line with your company’s ideal values all the time. We’re all human, and we’ll all occasionally mess up.
But the best leaders will own up to their mistakes, apologize, and work hard to improve in the future. This shows employees that company values are for everyone, including managers and other company leaders, and that they’re taken seriously.
If you’re interested in learning more about how we cultivate values and culture here at The Receptionist, the original visitor management system, check out the FABRIC Podcast.
In each episode, we explore what it takes to create a healthy, vibrant company culture at scale. We want to uncover unique and uncommon answers to the question: How do companies of any size create a culture and core values that employees actually live out? Check out the full list of episodes here.
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