A Silicon Valley CEO tells how he learned that company values aren't a nice add-on. They're mandatory to holding your business together.
You've got the idea for a company and posess the necessary skills. Maybe you even have money, co-founders and a solid business plan, but one Silicon Valley CEO says there’s one additional, essential ingredient your new company might be missing: values.
You may think of things like mission, values and culture as nebulous but nice additions to the real nitty gritty of entrepreneurship, a distant priority when compared to sound planning and a good grasp of finances. Justin Moore, co-founder and CEO of data backup company Axcient, once thought that way too. When starting an earlier business, he explained in an interview, he thought: "I'll just hire great people and we'll have this cool, fun culture. We'll build this awesome technology and have this great company. Values are touchy-feely things and culture just happens. You hire great people, you have great culture."
Now he's a changed man. Why? "It doesn't work," he said simply of his old approach, explaining that his new thinking makes values central to his business philosophy:
At the end of the day companies are all about people. My passion is to build a market-leading, market-changing billion-dollar company. I’m passionate about building a company that changes the world in some way and it takes having incredible people who do incredible, exceptional things and work really closely together towards a common goal.
In my opinion [values are] the best way to hire really brilliant people and build an organization where you are a collective force, where your value as an organization is three, four, five times the value of the individuals because you work so well together and everyone raises everyone else's game. They are the best weapon that a company has in terms of hiring top talent, retaining top talent and motivating top talent to play to their absolute top ability and therefore succeed as a team, so that’s why I’m so passionate about it.
Moore clearly has strong feelings about values, but even if his passion has convinced you to make them equally fundamental at your company, a central question remains: How to go about actually doing that? With something as subjective and intangible as values, how can entrepreneurs actually ensure that their team shares a common sense of what they're aiming for and how they should behave along the road to that goal? Moore has three main suggestions.
Having a values-driven company doesn't just happen, according to Moore, who suggests that "early on in the company, if you're a single founder or you have multiple founders, get together, put a bunch of stuff on the white board that's important to you and really establish and narrow down clear values, a clear mission and that kind of culture you want to create at the start." And don't even dream of choosing values that you don't firmly believe in as attractive company window dressing. "You are the moral compass as the CEO," says Moore. "If you don’t truly believe them, if those aren’t literally the most important things to you, then people will cue off that because people are very perspective and you undermine the entire value system of a company." Also important according to Moore is focus. Forget a dozen values and keep your list to, at most, five, or no one will remember them (or take you seriously) anyway.
Real values mean you have to make tough choices, and make no mistake, that could come down to canning your star performer if they’re not playing by the company's values. "I don't care how good that person codes or how good a sales person they are, if they're not a team first player, if they don’t operate with integrity, if they don't fit our value system, I’m going to manage them out of the business," insists Moore.
"Reinforce values, culture, and the mission at regular touch points with employees—interview, onboarding, employee reviews, all-hands meetings, all-hands e-mails, on the walls," says Moore. So if you claim to be customer-focused, there should be e-mails going out regularly from the very top of the company congratulating those who live up to this value. Reviews need to reflect how well employees are living up to the team's value. Moore also has regular brown bag lunches with the reports of his direct reports to solicit feedback. He asks them: "How can we improve? What can we do better? What can we do better on culture? How can we improve the product? The ideas that come out of these meetings are amazing," he says.
Making the right hires is also critical to Moore who, despite having around a hundred employees to oversee, interviews every single potential hire. "I strongly believe in companies that are less than a couple hundred employees and not hiring at too crazy a clip that the CEO should interview everybody before they’re hired simply to screen for culture and values," says Moore. He urges interviewers at his company to listen to their gut instinct when it comes to cultural fit and values, and to employ a range of questions from several interviewers to crack the surface gloss of interview polish and uncover a candidate's true beliefs and behavior.
If all of that sounds like a lot of work for something as seemingly nebulous as values, Moore a bit of advice for you: "Remember it's all about the people and you should never be too busy to focus on values and culture."
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