How to Choose Your Core Company Values

Nelson Joyce
March 22, 2019
company operating systems: how we use core values and operating principles at tettra

Whether they recognize it or not, all companies have values that define the way they work, behave, and make decisions. Choosing and documenting your company values is essential for strong team culture.

Company culture is a hot button issue at the moment. Organizations with toxic cultures find themselves under close scrutiny, while those with strong cultures are inundated with hundreds of job applications for every posted role.

What are Company Values?

Company values are the characteristics that you expect from your teammates. These are the personality traits that you look for when hiring, encourage on a day-to-day basis, and leverage, so the team works smoothly. For example the core values we look for and prioritize on our team include:

  • Caring
  • Humble
  • Inclusive
  • Rigorous
  • Positive

Generally, core values can’t be taught or changed. It would be foolhardy to think we could hire someone with a cutthroat mentality and team him or her to be more caring. Core values tend to be innate personal characteristics, and therefore, pretty immutable.

Core values are highly subjective, and they vary widely from team to team. Though we think it’s important to be caring towards one another and towards our customers, another company might take a different approach. They might have a “revenue-first” mentality, believing that company growth supersedes everything else. Which is fine! There’s no single right way of doing things. Every company functions differently, so it’s natural that every team has different core values.

We rely on our core values to identify the right people when making hiring decisions. This “shared vocabulary” also serves as a useful framework for having tough conversations. Everyone on Team Tettra knows and understands the what, how, and why behind being a rigorous team member. We might not discuss these core values all the time, but they act as the foundation for strong team member relationships.

Company Values at IDEO

IDEO is a design agency famous for the great work they do globally, but also for the creative and innovative culture they’ve designed. But, surprisingly, they only formalized these cultural values a few years ago. IDEO’s values are:

  • Be optimistic
  • Collaborate
  • Embrace ambiguity
  • Learn from failure
  • Make others successful
  • Take ownership
  • Talk less, do more

Sally Sosa, IDEO’s Global Talent Director of Culture and Communications, discusses the process of articulating these values. The outcomes are far reaching:

“There’s a shared understanding of what connects people across the organization…what can anchor the way they work together and the way they treat each other.”

The Difference Between Posturing and Action

IDEO’s approach differs from so many other organizations that pay lip service to values but don’t actually live them. This disconnect is dangerous: it keeps a company from performing at its best, and it can feel jarring to employees. Instead, IDEO seeks to live their values in everything they do.

But how did they gain consensus around these values, decades into the tenure of their company? Sally shares the story of how they published the The Little Book of IDEO and then leveraged their collaboration and ownership values by inviting participation from around the globe. They asked the entire team, across all offices, to give feedback.

“We invite the community along in that process. I really think things resonate more when people feel like they were a part of what was created or they have have co-authorship.”

This global initiative uncovered some inconsistencies that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. A few offices even created their own take on the values, to ensure they resonated in their specific countries and cultures. The outcome was better and more innovative, precisely because they’d lived their values throughout the process.

And yet, there are no shortcuts when it comes to cultural values. Sally is quick to distinguish between culture and the perks that are so often touted in Silicon Valley:

“There’s culture, and then there’s amenities…things like having your dry cleaning picked up, a bus take you to and from work, having five meals a day with ten types of kale…this doesn’t necessarily create culture. Culture comes down to how people treat each other, the permission people feel to be themselves and take risks, and the environment that’s created around people and the work that we do.”

Rolling Out Values at Scale

For companies looking to define or uphold their own values, Sally underscores the importance of communication. The way you roll something out matters nearly as much as what you roll out. They design their communication strategy with intention and passion, in order to create a great employee experience that truly empowers people.

She’s also benefited from strong internal advocacy: people who believe in the work and in doing the work in a way that aligns with IDEO’s values. This is especially important when there’s no top-down management culture. As Sally puts it, people become invested when you’re “bringing them along the journey.” Participation from everyone is key to the success of IDEO’s business and the strength of their culture.

Listen to the entire interview with Sally here:

How We Created Our Company Values at Tettra

We followed a pretty rigorous process to define our company values and our operating principles. (No surprise there, given our fourth core value, huh?) If you want to build out yours, we made a template you can use with your team.

The conversation was pretty interesting, and we all found the process to be fun. And since our CEO had built such a clear agenda, we stayed on topic and on time. It’s worth mentioning two factors that made the process successful:

1. We got everyone involved

The entire team joined in the conversation about what we value and how we operate. Each of us had time to share the characteristics and behaviors that we see as most important. We spent time discussing and explaining the pros and cons of various ideas. Naturally, there were differences of opinion, but the conversation felt very respectful and collaborative.

Because everyone had a chance to share their points of view, we all felt a sense of ownership over the final version. Cultivating a sense of ownership makes it easier for people to feel personally invested in using these core values and operating principles. This means we’re all more likely to use them on a day-to-day basis.

2. We identified the people directly responsible for the final version

Though everyone was involved in brainstorming and refining the initial ideas, our two co-founders finalized them. They aggregated everyone’s input to build the final versions of our core values and operating principles. Because we knew that they’d be the directly responsible individuals for the final version, we didn’t get caught in endless debates.

How to Document Your Values

Once you’ve landed on the core values that fit your team, make sure they’re easily accessible to everyone on the team. Don’t drop them in an email and make people go hunting through their inbox months later to dig them up. We keep our core values and operating principles documented on a Tettra page that anyone can access in Tettra or even from Slack.

We also make our values a key part of the onboarding process. All new team members are directed to read them and learn about the process we used to get there. By helping new team members understand how we do things and why, it’s easier for them to be productive from Day One. When confronted with a tough decision or situation, they can always lean on our values to find a resolution.

By codifying and documenting how we do things, our team is able to punch above our weight. We’ve seen many of our customers document their values in Tettra. So often, they cite these systems as foundational to their success. We’re honored to be such a cornerstone to thousands of companies, helping them to grow and thrive together.

Looking for more inspiration? Check out our library of company culture decks and employee handbooks.

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