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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