Stop vomiting back your buzzwords as “core values”; It misses the point.

There are a lot of tremendously fraught things about the idea of “company culture” or “mission statements” or “visioning” or whatnot. By my count, the No. 1 most-fraught thing is that often (read: almost all the time), the ‘values’ of a company are determined by the CEO and the top senior management people. Problem: senior leaders often have a different focus, as well as different fears, as the rest of the company. Because their focus is often on making money, they tend to kind of lip-service ideas around culture and mission — so they assign buzzwords and pie-in-the-sky concepts that are hard to define, then they push those down the chain and say in an all-hands meeting, “This is our culture now!”

Limited buy-in there.

The thing is, it’s hard to argue with. All companies have something like “Be great at what you do!” or “Serve humbly with co-workers and customers!” Right. Who’s gonna argue with that? “I ain’t trying to serve humbly, Bob! I’m out here trying to nuke my sales targets!” People may believe that, but they’ll never say it.

Long story short: the way most companies approach ‘culture’ is simply ‘a listing of core values with some action verbs.’ That totally misses the point. 

Core Vales Done Right: The Netflix Culture Document

It’s fairly popular and well-known: 13 million SlideShare shares, and Sheryl Sandberg called it Silicon Valley’s most important document. Netflix makes money and grows annually, so there’s a tie back to the bottom line here for those who think this is all HR fluff.

Patty McCord helped create the document as the chief talent (HR) officer of Netflix then; Fast Company did a profile of her and process, and this part stands out:

So, the two decided to start a different kind of company. Instead of listing the company’s core values like every other company was doing, McCord decide to write down the things the company valued, what mattered to them, what they expected in their people. For instance, if the company wanted courageous employees, they also wanted employees to know what “courage” looked like and what it didn’t look like.

Right. See, the key difference here is this:

  • Most companies list core values, which has little meaning
  • They made it a living, breathing document with purpose embedded in it

Think about this contrast: you have a list to go shopping, right? You need broccoli. That’s a list. It might have come to you from another person (your wife). It has little meaning beyond a series of tasks. It’s transactional.

Now think of something you and your wife co-created: a child, for example. Or a house. Or a riveting discussion about such-and-such.

Think about the gap between ‘a shopping list’ and ‘your first-born child’ and that’s kind of an over-dramatic version of the gap between ‘listing your culture’ and ‘making your culture an actual priority.’

What’s the core tenet of building a culture?

It can vary by who your company is and what it wants to achieve, but Google is another good model to consider in terms of culture-building. In essence, as Patty McCord herself says about the Netflix document, you only want ‘fully-formed adults’ applying.

I’m a big fan of that line. Work is, at best, a cool series of relationships and projects and purpose and boosted relevance and self-worth. At worst, it’s a goddamn maze of bullshit and no-context deliverables and people screeching about how busy they are and rushing to their 2:30 stand-up.

The single-biggest difference between ‘the good scenario’ and ‘the bad scenario’ above is simple:

  • Treat people like adults

That’s it. We bellow needlessly about salary all the time, but people essentially want respect and some opportunity for growth. (And yes, salary is nice too.) They wanted to be treated like an adult. Consider:

  • Who cares if I walk in at 10:20am if I hit all my targets?
  • Stop telling me how to do a project; let’s talk about what the goals are and why they’re important
  • If I want to work from a lake in Wyoming for two weeks, let me — I’m still meeting tasks, right?
  • You hired me and we signed a deal whereby you give some of your revenue back to me, yes? So can’t you trust me to do what’s expected of me?
  • If I don’t meet those expectations, feel free to terminate me

It’s all pretty simple: you do work, and you get compensated. The where and how shouldn’t matter. Only the why and the what (the goals and priorities) should. Treat people like adults. Let them do what they want to do, so long as they get their things done.

So why does culture and core values even matter?

A bad culture is going to lose you money. That’s been proven time and time again. And listen: there’s that old saying, whereby if you “stand for nothing,” then you can “fall for anything.” (20-something girls love to say that at brunch about douchebag guys they slept with, as an aside.)

Business models change a lot. Core customers drop off, or die. Your company will be tested. Challenges will arise. Heck, Apple is being challenged right now! And they’re like, the business school case study company of the last decade or two.

The only real way to meet unforeseen challenges is through culture, mission, talent, and people. At a certain point, financial metrics and KPIs and all that won’t take you into the end zone.

Culture is important. How you decide to define it is important. So please, please, please stop listing your core values and handing it to your employees. Think about the process differently. Put some thought into it. Care. It has much more long-run value than your 1:15pm about Q2 go-to-market strategy, I promise.


My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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