How to tell if your company’s values actually matter

Having company values only counts if employees remember what they are.
Having company values only counts if employees remember what they are.
Image: Jopwell
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During a keynote at a recent conference, I asked the audience to raise their hands if they worked for a company that has a mission and set of values.

All of the hands went up.

Then I asked them to keep their hands raised if those values actually meant something. Only about a third of the hands stayed up.

Mission statements are nothing new. Defining a company’s values isn’t new, either. What is new is that millennials and Gen Z have made it clear that purpose and meaning matter and that they want to work for companies where those values come off the walls and can be felt through the halls.

So, how does a leader make that happen? I recently spoke to Steph Korey, co-founder and CEO of the very cool travel brand, Away, which she founded with Jen Rubio, Away’s Chief Brand Officer, because their values are so deeply embedded in everything they do, and I wanted to know how they work their magic.

Do you know who you are?

Many companies make the mistake of having too many values. I have worked with companies that have 10, 12, or 14 values. Employees can’t even remember this many values, let alone act on them.

In my experience, the sweet spot is between four and six values; I wasn’t surprised to hear that Away has six. They are:

  • Thoughtful
  • In It Together
  • Customer-Obsessed
  • Iterative
  • Accessible
  • Empowered

 To help companies understand if their values are real, I use a test called “a fork in the road.” When leaders are at a fork in the road and need to make a tough decision at work (like launching a new product, hiring or firing a person) the values should guide them. If they don’t, you need to go back to the drawing board and develop values that work.

Steph and her team were faced with a huge challenge in the beginning of 2018 when airlines decided that passengers were no longer able to check a bag with a power bank, which was one of their top-selling items.

Reflecting on their values of being “thoughtful” and “customer-obsessed,” they asked themselves—what is the thoughtful and most customer-obsessed thing to do for our community? Making them buy new suitcases that included removable power banks was definitely not it.

So, instead, they proactively reached out to customers and offered to let them update their old suitcases for new ones designed for easy removal. Tens of thousands of customers received the new parts, and were so appreciative of the gesture that they wound up buying more suitcases for their brothers, sisters, best friends, and kids.

Living the company values is good for customers and good for the bottom line.

Do you speak in a human voice?

Once a company knows its values, everyone inside the company needs to speak in that values-driven—and human—voice, whether they are communicating via email, Slack, on the phone, or in a meeting.

Another Away value is “accessible.” Steph and her team wanted to be sure this value was transmitted in a very human voice, and so she started by doing something radical—making a “no internal email” policy. Why? Because she and other leaders in the company believed that the human way to work was through open lines of communication in which all information was accessible to everyone. According to Steph, “email is inherently exclusionary. Whoever starts the email chain is deciding whose point of view should be considered.” By using a public Slack channel instead, anyone can jump in at any time, and every single employee can go back into old conversations and see why each decision in the company was made.

Away also uses Slack to share stories about their values. It developed a channel called #team-love. On #team-love, an employee can recognize someone for living the Away values. They are asked to tell the story of which core value the person exemplified and how it impacted the team and the company. To scale the values even more, a survey goes out each week in advance of the team’s Wednesday all-hands meeting to ask for examples of “core values in action” and each week a handful of examples are shared with the whole company.

By asking employees to gather stories about values, everyone becomes more aware of values. The company becomes a value-rich environment.

Are employees empowered to live the values?

An important step in keeping values alive is to empower everyone from the top down to actually use them. One of my favorite Away values is “iterative,” which is also something I’ve not yet seen as a company value.  Steph shared: “At Away, we are trying to do new big ambitious things that have never been done. How that happens is that we are always trying new things and learning from them.”  Therefore, Away employees must iterate, meaning try new things and revise, then start again. If they aren’t making mistakes, they aren’t trying hard enough. And they aren’t living the values.

So, how do they do it? It starts with Steph and Jen. When they make a mistake, they share it publicly, and they encourage everyone else to do the same.

“Every time you try something, and it doesn’t work, go tell everyone.”

As Steph told me, “Think about how great it is to learn from your own mistakes. Then, think about how great it would be if you could learn from everyone’s mistakes. The impact is exponential.”

And that’s what it takes for a startup to take off.

Erica Keswin is the author of the book Bring Your Human to Work: Ten Sure-Fire Ways to Design a Workplace That is Good for People, Great for Business, and Just Might Change the World.