How To Ask Questions That Uncover Your Company's Values

Are your personal values engrained in the identity of your entire organization? Let's find out.

Defining your company’s vision is no easy task. How can you possibly condense what you do in your 60-hour weeks with your entire team and the grand vision behind it into a short and sweet sentence? You could probably write a 10-page article on what you’re up to, but one sentence? That’s brutal.

The thing is, you need that short and sweet elevator pitch. You may have one version for your internal purposes and another slightly different version to present to the rest of the world, but this boiled-down articulation is truly mission critical. It will underscore everything in your company, from your sales pitches to hiring practices. And it will inform the one question you should be asking your team on a weekly basis to ensure alignment, momentum, and the kind of progress that will turn you into an industry leader.

Here’s how to begin the inquiry:

Identify Your Company’s Values.

It’s word-cloud time. Step up to the whiteboard, and brainstorm the value principles that matter most to your team. These are guiding principles that describe your product goals, development philosophy and work ethic. These are the factors that your team members hold close to their hearts. They are moral and intellectual forces that help your organization make decisions and choose direction.

As startup leaders, we can’t assume that all of our personal values will become a part of the entire organization. You need to listen more than talk to understand the values that your entire organization embraces most. One of your chief roles as a founder or CEO is to prioritize and communicate what matters most to your group.

As startup coach Dave Kashen puts it, “Select startup values that enable team members to flourish and the company to win in the marketplace.” The clearer you can communicate your vision, the more your team will understand it, work into it, live and breathe it for the organization.

Take a Look Inside.

The first place where you should start looking for organizational values is with yourself. On both personal and professional levels, what do you care about most?

The answers to that question are far from straightforward. It’s just like interviewing yourself. Try situational questions like these:

  • Does meeting a project deadline take priority over delivering exceptional work?
  • Is a 10-hour company workday more important to you than happy team members?
  • In what cases will you say ‘no’ to a customer or turn down a prospect?
  • In what situations is it okay to sacrifice family time for work?
  • What is one high standard you wouldn’t sacrifice for anything?

Your goal here is to raise awareness about topics that matter to you (and problems that need to be solved). These answers will steer the good habits and behaviors of the people who will actualize your vision.

Once you’ve gone through this process of introspection, take it a step further.

Encourage your team members to identify their own sets of questions in addition to the ones that you’ve established. Throughout the course of their roles and time, they will inevitably confront situations and decisions that will be unique to them. Create a constellation of situations, both positive and negative that the organization as a whole may one day encounter.

This dialogue will establish strong common ground. Find intersecting points and address your blind spots to create a full, 360-degree view.

Think of your job as a researcher, the Chief Anthropologist of your organization. You can also identify organizational values by looking at how people work within your company and by identifying the actions that the organization has taken over in the last few years.

When Have You Felt Most Alive?

Your logical brain is only part of the equation. Pay attention to how you and your team members feel as well. Human beings are complex; we’re as motivated by our emotions as we are with our intellects. You can’t ignore either.

So put your EQ to work and figure out what makes you tick. Look at both positive and negative aspects of what you’re feeling.

Consider these questions to help you along the way:

  • When have you felt most alive?
  • What situations invoke the most intense emotions you’ve felt, both positively and negatively?
  • What stories inspire you?

Answer these questions individually first. Then, get together as a group. It’s important to maintain both an individual and group-level view.

Sometimes, it takes a series of questions to help you drill down to the answers that matter most. These answers will illuminate the values you’ll need to deeply instill within your company in order for you to reach your greatest potential on both an individual and organizational level.

--David Hassell is a serial entrepreneur and currently founder & CEO of 15Five, a SaaS company focused on helping individuals and organizations reach their highest potential. Follow him on Twitter at @dhassell.

[Image: Flickr user Julie Jordan Scott]

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7 Comments

  • Mark Rome, zEthics

    Well stated, "... brainstorm the value principles that matter most to your
    team. These are guiding principles that describe your product goals,
    development philosophy and work ethic. These are the factors that your team
    members hold close to their hearts. They are moral and intellectual forces that
    help your organization make decisions and choose direction."

    Within every organization, decision making drives performance. Every employee comes to work every day and makes decisions that impact performance.

    The workplace has many temptations that employees must resist, from the petty
    impulse to claim credit for someone else's work, to the unscrupulous lapse of
    lying in a negotiation, to the criminal act of misrepresenting financial
    numbers.

    These decisions, at every level of the organization, define the corporate culture and
    drive performance.

    In 2008, Harvard Business School Professor Robert S. Kaplan and his Palladium Group colleague David P. Norton wrote The Execution Premium: Linking Strategy to
    Operations for Competitive Advantage. Kaplan and Norton identify ten process (10) steps to strategy execution:

    Step 1: Visualize the strategy.
    Step 2: Communicate strategy.
    Step 3: Identify strategic projects.
    Step 4: Align projects with strategy.
    Step 5: Align individual roles and provide incentives.
    Step 6: Manage projects.
    Step 7: Make decisions aligned with strategy.
    Step 8: Measure the strategy.
    Step 9: Report progress.
    Step 10: Reward performance.

    "As startup leaders, we can’t assume that all of our personal values will become a
    part of the entire organization. You need to listen more than talk to
    understand the values that your entire organization embraces most. One of your
    chief roles as a founder or CEO is to prioritize and communicate what matters
    most to your group."

    With the right tools and the right data, leadership can better understand its workforce to align the culture (decision making) with corporate goals and drive
    performance.

  • FergusonValues

    Good piece. I call them "Differentiating Values" is they determine what makes the organization unique and creates competitive advantage. I also suggest organizations select a maximum of 3 values, because that's all people can remember.

  • Yasmin

    I really like this piece. These are great questions to ask yourself on a personal level as well. Thanks!

  • Warren Roddy

    The article is interesting but it doesn't define the stage of a company. Is it a startup or a company that's been around for decades. If it's a startup then you have the opportunity to create a culture around what the founders value--don't hire people that you know run counter to your values. If you're a decades old company then defining the vision, or redefining the vision, is going to be a lot harder because the culture has already been defined and so have the values. Gerstner did a great job redefining IBM - Olsen did a horrible job of it at DEC.

  • K N Krishna Swamy

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    who is sensing silently about the values of the company and has indirect hold
    on the company…Revolutionize the Thinking Process>Change at the Speed of
    Light>Light the Inner-Light>>>leadership_innovations@yahoo.com

  • Michael

    Hi David, we have created a psychometric tool to establish Corporate Values and Personal Values, we can even compare the two to evaluate if a corporation and a person have a good fit in terms of inherent values. Let me know if you would like to find out more? I would be happy to discuss this with you.