Former Director of People Science - Performance, Culture Amp
“Values are not created. They’re uncovered. Like carving a bear from a block of stone, you aren’t creating it, you’re uncovering it by removing everything that’s not the bear," explains Didier Elzinga, Founder & CEO of Culture Amp.
As Director of Culture Enablement at Culture Amp, I often get asked about our values – what they are, how we talk about them, how we apply them, and of course, how we created them. I’d love to say I was part of Culture Amp when our three original values were solidified, but that was a couple of years before I joined the company. I’ve been fortunate to have quite a few conversations about the origins of our values with all of our founders: Didier Elzinga, Doug English, Rod Hamilton, and Jon Williams.
In this blog, I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned about how our original values came into being.
Why do company values matter?
As our CEO Didier Elzinga says, values are the fulcrum on which the lever rests to move a company forward. Regardless of how long the lever is (the lever is your people, leadership, and practices), it’s essentially useless without a strong base of values to work from. We’ve seen numerous companies skyrocket from startup stage to multi-million or billion dollar companies, only to collapse or face almost crippling internal issues.
In most cases, the organizational values of these companies were lacking or simply didn’t exist beyond a set of phrases painted on their office walls.
Values represent the core of who we are, what we do, and how we define success and failure. For values to have an impact on driving positive behavior and decision-making, they must be clear and direct. Ideally, values should also represent what’s unique about your organization's mindset.
Values that call out the fundamental necessities of a reasonably functional company are what we call “pay-to-play” or “hygiene” factors. This list includes values we’ve seen dozens of times, like Integrity, Teamwork, Innovation, etc. I don’t mean to imply these aren’t important. Rather, they don’t differentiate one organization from the next.
Strong values resonate with kindred spirits, and those individuals will share in the sacrifices that must be made when things are hard. Commitment to values comes in those moments of tension when you lean on your values to move forward in a way that won’t conflict with your conscience.
Where did Culture Amp’s values come from?
After working together for almost two years and with the company at a headcount of fewer than ten Campers (what we call employees at Culture Amp), our founders sat down one very late night in early 2014 to chip away at the stone and put a name on what they really cared about.
Doug, Jon, Rod, and Didier each spent time writing “I believe…” statements on what they felt was fundamental to how things are done at Culture Amp, along with “We are/believe/strive for…” statements on what felt foundational to the mindset and faith of the company – again, what they leaned on when facing difficult decisions. Each founder took time to think about what’s important to them, write down their ideas, and then share them for discussion.
Examples of the ideas shared include:
“If there was an overriding theme, it was we believe in the power of feedback… in achieving continuous improvement.” - Jon
“We are courageous – we take risks, but they are ‘smart’ risks backed by some data” - Rod
“I believe in trusting people to make decisions, not by consensus but by transparency. We decide who the right person is to make a decision, give them as much input as we can, and then let them make the decision – and most importantly, be accountable for the consequences of that decision. Consult widely but make decisions and live with them.” - Didier
“We are here to help our customers solve real problems - i.e., we’re not just administering a survey, we’re helping them create their ideal culture” - Rod
“I believe in courage. The courage to challenge the way things are done and the assumptions people make (i.e., how to build a sales team, how to position a brand, etc.) and also the courage required to be emotionally vulnerable at work.” - Didier
Our founders identified core themes, questioned each other’s ideas to ensure they got to the heart of what mattered, and then iterated on the process. They cut out generic, pay-to-play material along with statements that didn’t resonate or wouldn’t likely drive behavior. Values are the foundation of culture and must be unpacked with intention. In that vein, it’s important to note that our three original values weren’t immediately solidified after that late night session.
Culture Amp’s company values
It took many months of testing them in practice to hone the wording down our values down to the simple, direct statements they are now:
Having the courage to be vulnerable, learning faster through feedback, and trusting people to make decisions are the foundation for how we work, and they are serving us well – even years later.
So, how did we get here?
The premise of identifying values is like the story of finding the bear in the stone: they’re already there. You just need to take the time to uncover them. It’s not about creating abstract, aspirational values you’ll impose on your company. It’s about identifying what matters most to your company through behaviors like how your teams talk and act, how learning and growth are fostered, and what criteria you use to define success and failure.
How to uncover your core company values
In the meantime, if you’re working on discovering your values or those of your organization, here are a few questions you can ask yourself in addition to the “I believe / we strive for” type questions our founders used:
Looking back at the moments when you were most proud of the work you or your team did, why exactly do you feel that way? On the flip side, what makes you most frustrated or angry?
When you think about other organizations or leaders you truly admire, what is it that makes you feel that way?
If you can think of an important decision you had to make that ultimately didn’t sit well in your mind, what’s the source of that dissonance, and what could you have changed that would clear things up?
Once you have a list of initial values statements or actions that feel right, hone them down using a few prioritization questions such as:
Do I value X even over Y? For example, Do I value shipping innovative features quickly, even over building new products without bugs?
Am I willing to make significant sacrifices (e.g., time, money, relationships) to uphold this value?
Is this value something I can expect my most devoted coworkers to live by, even when it involves some level of sacrifice?
By asking and answering these questions, you and your team will get closer to uncovering your core company values.
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