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Jul 15, 2021

It is critical to establish core values for your company, a list of your core beliefs and values — what you and your company stand for (not who you wish you could become). They don’t have to be elaborate or grandiose, either. When I started my company (and it was literally just me, myself, and I), my values fit on an index card — with space to spare: 

  • Be smart 
  • Deliver results 
  • Be honest 
  • Be grateful 
  • Move fast 

Brief as they were, these were the foundation of our culture and brand. As a company grows, though, your initial values expand and infuse the policies and processes you establish. You must think about how they will permeate every aspect of your business, in product development and testing, customer service, employee performance programs and benefits, marketing campaigns, financial reporting, internal communication, and competitive positioning. 

Furthermore, your culture is based on how you and your leadership team act and behave — where you take your team out for drinks, how you manage through a crisis, the quality of the people in your network, even your office decor. You model the values that create a culture. 

The Evolution of My Company’s Values

I remember when I was interviewing the head of engineering at a network management software startup that had just become our client. We were talking about the company’s culture and values in preparation for a press launch.

“We don’t have a culture. We just work hard,” he said, and then he proceeded to tell me in hushed tones that he was interviewing at other companies.

Ugh. He had just spoken volumes about his firm’s leadership and future viability. 

A strong culture will keep you and your employees from faking it. And it will be instrumental in building a strong brand for your company. All of this — and it is a lot — should be set up early, as you are building and growing your business. You must communicate the values and your desired culture in words, directly, and you have to make it clear that you and everyone else in the organization must honor and protect that culture. 

Our values statement (after we actually became a company and had more than a handful of employees) stayed in place for about 10 years or so. It was quite lengthy in its detail, so I’ve condensed it here. 

Teamwork. We pledge to be supportive and accountable, to share responsibilities, to believe in ourselves, and to work together as a family and in teams to support our clients. 

Education. We strive to be the best at our jobs by continuously learning new skills, growing in our strategic expertise and proficiency, our well-roundedness, and our mastery of our job responsibilities. 

Accountability. We promise to our clients and to each other to be trustworthy, reliable, productive, and dependable, to follow through, and to produce high-quality, error-free work. 

Motivation. We are always resourceful, never cookie cutter. We have a can-do, energetic attitude, go the extra mile, and are always proactive in the work we do for our clients. 

Humor. We work hard and play hard, and our glass is always half full. We find opportunities to laugh and always find a way to make things work. 

Integrity. This is a combination of humility, honesty, ethics, morals, accuracy, and precision. We take pride in our work and we give it, and everything we say and do, our honest and best attention. We admit mistakes and uphold the company’s values and standards. 

These values were tweaked over the years, until I later revised and modernized them, with much input from our employees and clients. The following statement covered roughly the second half of my company’s life. Again, each value was followed by a lot of detail about what it meant in practice. It was important that it all tied together. 

We’re a family. We have each other’s backs and we care about each other. 

We’re driven. We succeed based on our own merit and entrepreneurial spirit. 

We are bold. We think on our feet and are never afraid to try something new. 

We are invested. We produce results that move our clients’ businesses forward. 

Integrity above all. We do the right thing, in the right way. 

We never give up. Period. 

It is interesting to compare this second list to the first. In some ways, it is more mature and clear, and in other ways it is rather similar, including the use of identical words and themes: family, creativity, integrity, results, success, and persistence. In communicating these values at our all-hands meeting one day, I expressed their importance. 

“Values are the reason people come here, why they stay, and why they come back,” I said. “They are the reason we’ve been in business for this long. These are not one-word posters with sunsets, seagulls, and rainbows in the background. They are from the heart and they are the bones of this company. They give us something to hold us to, strive for, and are something to be proud of and commended for.” 

Values in Action

One of the core values of my firm was to be results-driven and thoroughly invested in our clients. That meant exceeding clients’ expectations of our service. Stating our core values informed and guided what we needed to do as a company and prompted some of these tactical actions. 

Internal troubleshooting sessions. To anticipate issues before they turned into problems, we convened monthly troubleshooting meetings with the account team and non-team members. At first, employees resisted these meetings, feeling defensive about their work. Acceptance came when managers proved it was OK to talk about problems without fearing blowback and when staff acknowledged that every account had problems that needed solving. Another positive side-effect came in the identification of new ideas that could potentially deliver additional results to our clients.

External big-picture discussions. While the troubleshooting meetings focused on short-to-midterm issues, higher-level conversations with our clients’ CEOs, execs, and board members took us out of the day-to-day, gave us new ideas, and brought a longer-term, more strategic dimension to our work. These meetings involved the most senior members of my company (including me) and were wide-ranging, covering topics from future product development to competitive concerns, upcoming expansion, and partnerships. 

Unexpected value-added services. We offered multidimensional programs, with services outside of our immediate purview, such as events management, web application development, and introductions to venture capitalists for outside funding. These capabilities and relationships were out of the realm of the typical engagement. They offered clients value that felt like bonuses to their contracts, even as they helped drive results.

The “whole” customer. We took a broad, 365-degree view of every client engagement, from how we connected with our clients’ receptionist to relationships we forged with board members, investors, sales staff, engineers, and, of course, their marketing people. These different perspectives colored our programs, enhanced our knowledge, infused our storytelling with new angles, and deepened relationships. Specific agency personnel were assigned to specific client personnel based on role and chemistry. 

Client feedback. I gave strong consideration to client satisfaction in employee performance reviews. This input was largely derived from quarterly conversations my partners and I had with our clients, aimed at learning what was working on their accounts, where there was room for improvement, and whom they felt were our star performers. (For a while, we issued online surveys to our clients, but the personal conversations produced far more valuable feedback and clients greatly appreciated the attention.) 

Employee recognition. We were never stingy with employee recognition for exceptional client results, which was announced at our all-hands company meetings. We created a “wall of fame” to showcase the most excellent and meaningful results our employees generated. 

It’s the how, not the what. We showed our clients how we would support them. Sharing with them our methodology became as valuable as telling them what we would do for them. This set us apart from other firms our size. 

You can see how articulating a specific value focused on delivering exceptional client service infused our processes and culture. It touched how we behaved and talked to one another internally, as well as how we presented ourselves to prospects and developed relationships with the press, how we carried ourselves at networking events, and (this is important but often overlooked) how we spoke about work to our family and friends. 

Not every client was delighted with our work, and we definitely weren’t always perfect, but we did earn a reputation as a quality shop with high standards that consistently delivered results and cared deeply about providing client value. 

Had we failed to establish and inculcate that value, I’m certain we would not have unilaterally aimed as high or tried as hard, which in the end would have produced only average results and an equivalent reputation. 

Another key value and aspect of our culture was the notion of “family” and “team,” which was centered around employee development and retention. In the early 1990s, a lot of agencies were known as “body shops,” demanding work for long hours at subpar pay in the interest of generating big profits that most employees never got to enjoy. The average retention rate of a mid-level person in the tech PR agency world was 18 months. It’s hard to grow a business and provide quality client service when you’re constantly turning over your staff. 

From the outset, my goal was to create a culture in which I wanted to work. I craved a culture that would motivate employees to stay with my company, to learn, and to build their careers over time while growing our organization. I believed that if my employees were happy, they would give that extra 5% to make our clients happy. Continuity of staff meant continuity of business. Everything began and ended with my employees. 

This devotion manifested itself in vigorous employee professional development programs with internal brown-bag sessions, outside speakers, management training, a focus on mentoring, and a budget for each employee to attend the seminars and networking events that interested them. 

We also led the industry with benefits, including one of the industry’s first work-from-home programs, our Creative Working Solution policy for new mothers, highly competitive salaries, extensive vacation and health insurance policies, cool office space, an incentive quarterly bonus program, a 401(k) with a company match, and a trust fund with a $1,000 contribution that we set up on behalf of each child born to a company employee. All of these were impressive at the time, and pretty spectacular for a firm of our size. 

While our benefits were great, what mattered most was a working environment in which people knew they could be themselves, where everyone’s voice and opinion mattered, and where ideas were valued, heard, and considered. It was an environment that encouraged creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit, which I fostered by being open to new business ideas from our employees. 

Of course, not every idea was implemented, but any idea that made good business sense was heard and entertained. 

Finally, and very importantly, we also had a “no assholes” policy. This applied to both clients and employees. We did not tolerate bad behavior or office politics, and those who played that game never lasted long.

Adapted from Make It, Don’t Fake It: Leading With Authenticity for Real Business Success by Sabrina Horn (Berrett-Koehler). © 2021