This article is an excerpt from Jack Altman’s book, People Strategy: How to Invest in People and Make Culture Your Competitive Advantage.
The story of creating Lattice’s company values begins in the small town of Troncones, Mexico in 2018, during our second annual company-wide off-site. The idea was simple: give everyone a long weekend to swim in the ocean, enjoy meals together, read by the pool, and get to know their Lattice coworkers in a new setting. But we did have one activity planned: an exercise to help us define our company values.
What a company values – and how it expresses those values – has never been more important. When competition for top talent is high, the bedrock principles that undergird an organization can help it differentiate itself. In a tumultuous business landscape, they can serve as a blueprint for navigating difficult times and can create a shared sense of purpose. Values can serve as a beacon for prospective employees, attracting those who are like-minded and share in the company’s ethos; they can also serve the dual purpose of helping retain the talent they already have. Company values act like a behavioral north star, of sorts, which everyone from executives to the recent graduate starting their first job can look to in the day-to-day grind. But determining and expressing those values can prove difficult, as we would soon learn during that long weekend in Mexico.
We gathered in a big circle on the beach, underneath a tent. It was a postcard-perfect day – the waves lapping on the shore and the birds calling in the distance. Against this relaxing backdrop, one of our product designers handed out pens and three slips of paper to all 30 of the team members on the trip. He asked everyone to write down the qualities they most valued in their coworkers and themselves. After five minutes, we went around the circle, and employees would share one of their values with the group.
We continued like this for more than an hour. Maybe it was the serene setting, maybe it was the exercise itself, but I couldn’t believe how much everyone opened up. One engineer, who normally was a quiet and reserved person, stood up and shared how determination and perseverance defined his approach to life. Several employees spoke about the importance of being honest, not just with others, but with ourselves. A marketer gave an impassioned speech about why creativity and independent thinking inspired him most. People laughed. People cried. People heard things from their coworkers they’d never known before. It felt like a major breakthrough.
At least that’s what it felt like until we got back to the office. When we took the notes we’d compiled during the exercise and distilled them to a few key values, they were cringingly bland. Empathy. Effort. Growth. Customer-obsession. Though the process was great, the result was a set of values that could have applied to any company. What organization doesn’t value effort? Are there really companies that don’t want to grow? Surely some companies don’t put their customers first – but they probably don’t stay in business for long.
I shared with the team the uninspiring values we’d arrived at, but I could tell it didn’t stick. Everyone nodded along, then went on with their lives, and the values we had defined there on the beach that gorgeous day receded to the backs of their minds. Every so often, someone might invoke one of the values in a conversation – but even then, they seemed interchangeable. “Integrity is one of our values, right?” someone would ask. (It was not.) When employees remembered what the values were, they often found it difficult to apply them. How, exactly, does a content marketer or a product designer practice “empathy” in their daily work?
What we didn’t realize at the time, but have learned since, is that there are “values” that point to the real thing (what you talk about in all-hands meetings and looks nice in posters on the company walls) and then there are values, which are the true qualities and actions that you deeply care about. In setting our original course, we established too much of the former and not enough of the latter. In other words, we tried to incorporate everything. But in defining our values too broadly, we failed to define our values at all. The set of principles we’d outlined were so bland that they failed to resonate even with those of us who’d established them. It’s hard to admit to yourself that you failed. But we knew we’d missed the mark.
Six months after announcing our new company values, we decided to try again. How could we take the things we knew we valued as a group and articulate them in a way that would mean something? How could we define our values in a way that was memorable, unique to Lattice, and not only described, but inspired the feelings and ideas that we wanted to promote?
We started by asking ourselves which phrases we used organically on that day in Troncones, looking to find something in the words we used that might embody the things we care about. One of those phrases was “Ship, Shipmate, Self.” At the time, we’d been using the mantra quite a bit – when decisions arose that threw the company, teammates, and individuals into conflict. It was a reminder to put the company’s well-being and success over that of the individual and to put the well-being and success of our colleagues over our own.
It was memorable. It was real. Most importantly, it was a tangible reminder that employees could use to guide their decision-making in any circumstance.
We had our first value.
Next, we referred to a phrase that we’d been using around the office about the virtue of doing real work and of focusing on inputs over outputs: “Chop Wood, Carry Water.” We had borrowed the mantra from the title of Joshua Medcalf’s book, Chop Wood Carry Water: How to Fall in Love with the Process of Becoming Great (CreateSpace, 2015), an insightful exploration of – among other things – the importance of embracing the process rather than merely the result. In this story of a boy training to become a samurai warrior, our hero learns early on the wisdom of paying attention to the action at hand:
Akira gathered the newly arrived apprentices and informed them of their first task: for the rest of the morning, they would chop wood and carry water.
John was surprised and confused. He addressed his teacher with the proper title of respect that they had been taught: “Akira- sensei, what do you mean?”
The old man explained that their community was outfitted with every modern convenience, except for heat and running water. Instead of using gas or electricity, they burned wood for heat when the weather grew cold. And in order to use water in the bathrooms and kitchen, it had to be brought by hand from a well outside. Thus, in order for the community to use water and stay warm during the winter, the community depended on everyone to chop wood and carry water.
“But when will we get to shoot?” John wondered aloud.
Akira just smiled. “Shooting will come soon enough. But first, you must chop wood, and carry water.”
John was frustrated, but he obeyed. He trusted his sensei’s wisdom, and knew that in time, they would move on to more exciting things.
At Lattice, we had taken the lesson of the parable to heart in our daily work: it connected with our product, our pursuit for constant improvement, and our belief that focusing on the process will lead to good results. We made it our second value.
By now, we were rolling.
Reflecting on those things we wanted to capture in our values, we decided that we needed somehow to allude to the importance of pragmatism, transparency, ambition, and growth. “Clear Eyes” became our next guiding principle, alluding to our goal of approaching our work, colleagues, customers, and ourselves with clarity and honesty. We believe that starting from a place of truth will make us successful and happy in the long run. We harness pragmatism as a superpower.
After some debate, we arrived next at our last principle: “What’s Next?” The question served as a reminder to always be looking forward. At Lattice, we have an insatiable appetite to grow, to improve, and to look for the next horizon. Whenever we arrive at a destination, we see it as the beginning of a new journey. Our work will never be done.
A great deal changed for us once we managed to zero in on our company values. Where previously we were operating under the auspices of high-minded but not especially meaningful or memorable buzzwords, we now had a clear guiding light to give us direction. We integrated those four values into every fiber of our organization, and in doing so we were able to distribute the decision-making process across the company. Even without founders or managers present, everyone at the company knew how to operate – how to run meetings, how to hire, how to hold a performance review. Our company values serve as a road map for how to behave, even when those who set out those values aren’t in the room.
Defining your company values can be challenging, but it is undoubtedly worth it. Consider Airbnb, one of the most successful start-ups in recent memory. A company culture grounded in well-defined values alone isn’t enough to ensure success, but CEO Brian Chesky has attributed a great deal of his company’s success to its commitment to a core philosophy – one unique to his organization.
“Integrity, honesty – those aren’t core values,” Chesky said in a 2014 speech at Stanford University. “Those are values that everyone should have. But there have to be like three, five, six things that are unique to you. And you can probably think about this in your life. What is different about you than every single other person, if you could only tell them three or four things, you would want them to know about you.”
Values have the power to shape both the employee experience as well as your brand. Those values not only help give your company identity and direction, but they also bind employees to one another in service of a common goal. Once defined, values should help guide your decision-making process, both at the management level and in the day-to-day trenches for all employees. For the values to work, they must be specific to your company. And they need to be bold.
Companies put a lot of strategic planning into creating clear go-to-market and product strategies each year. Why aren't we doing the same for defining our People strategy? It’s critical that executives and HR leaders not only plan how our companies will engage with employees but also how they will achieve their goals.
Over the years working with thousands of companies, Lattice has learned what it means to be a people-centric company. In People Strategy, we want to give executives, HR leaders, and even managers a framework for transforming their company into one that's people-centric, building and maintaining a healthy culture of high performance.
If you want to learn more about how Lattice can help enable all these important People Strategy practices at your company, book a Lattice demo to see our products and platform in action.