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How to Create Organizational Values and Why Your Company Needs Them

How to Create Organizational Values and Why Your Company Needs Them
cartoonish pirates having fun on the deck of a ship, two are climbing a mast, two are rolling down the stairs from the captain's deck, one is sitting on a barrel with a bear shaving him, one is swinging on a rope in his right hand and a glass of wine in the left
cartoonish pirates having fun on the deck of a ship, two are climbing a mast, two are rolling down the stairs from the captain's deck, one is sitting on a barrel with a bear shaving him, one is swinging on a rope in his right hand and a glass of wine in the left
Organizational values play a crucial role in shaping corporate culture and making the workflow more effective and comfortable for the company, its employees, and clients. In this article, we will tell you about the things you should take into consideration when working on your company values and share the story of how we created our values.
In September of 2020 we gathered our team in the office to present them with one of the most important documents in the history of the agency — our corporate values.
Let me walk you through this part of our life and tell you why we needed the values, how we created them, and how we use them.

Why Do Companies Need Values?

Business processes in a company start with organizational values. For example, all of the HR activities are built around the company values: shaping an image of a perfect candidate, positioning and promotion of an HR brand, headhunting, onboarding, promoting, developing, teaching, and even firing people.
Company values help achieve business goals by forming the cultural code: this code will increase the employees' engagement, productivity, satisfaction, and other essential HR metrics.
Organizational values can also serve as a lighthouse — if you get lost in an uncertain situation, their guiding light will lead you past the sharp rocks.
When I'm meeting new employees I give them simple advice:
"If you don't know what decision to make or what to do in a difficult situation, just study our corporate values and ask yourself a question: 'Which decision will meet this credo?' You will surely get the answer."

How Companies Usually Create Their Values

Companies choose the way of creating organizational values depending on their goals.
Employees must strive to conform to the ideal image in order to comply with regulations and accurately fulfill KPIs. It is a job for the execs or the HR of the company to form this image. Managers write the principles for an employee to follow so that the main tasks are completed properly. Organizational values are born from these principles, such as discipline and focus on the result.
Another way of creating corporate values is when a company uses the already formed culture as a launchpad. The employees find out what this culture is and what plays crucial importance within it. By the way, if we form the values this way, it's likely for new principles to appear, the ones that we really want to have, but don't have right now. It's cool to have values "with room for us to grow" if they don't break the system we already have. In our case, it is transparency — we strive to make all processes visible, to let our employees share their results without discussing everything behind the scenes, and perceiving the boss as the only means of solving all the problems.

Why Should Everyone Be Involved in the Process of Formulating Organizational Values?

Unfortunately, the values created by either the execs or the HR are usually pretty out of touch and aren't connected to the actual problems of the team, as both execs and HRs have their own values and vision of the team that may not correlate with the real situation at all.
Execs' values will concern money, business, efficiency, and other things barely connected with the people on the team. Even if they are mentioned in these values then just as a means of achieving the goals.
The situation with the HRs is reversed. They're focused on the team, loyalty, engagement, and the atmosphere inside the team, but not the business. It's something like family rules ("What's real is family, your family" © Dom Toretto). In some fields of business, it's essential to have goals that people would be eager to achieve, working hard to earn money and get results. It can cultivate either a high level of individualism in the team or a focus on teamwork.
Values that make sense for only one part of the team won't work. Even if you hire people who share the values of one side only, a not-so-glorious path of "survival" will await them. New business processes will fall apart and if an employee manages to make it to a management position while keeping these values, there will be two potential outcomes — either the team will drive them crazy or they will eventually quit on their own. This is the case when the values can ruin everything.
There are exceptions, a small team with a strong and down-to-earth leader who inspires everyone and who is always aware of what's going on within the team. In this case, the team doesn't question the leader's decision.
The best option for formulating corporate values is for the execs and HR to work together on it. This should keep the balance between the people and the business. It's also crucial to involve the whole team in the process as they will help you stay grounded in both areas.
Important notice! You can outsource someone to engage in the process of developing organizational values, but it must be an exceptional professional who is able to feel your company on all levels.
Another important notice! While working on values, you should also take into consideration your clients, as the client strategy starts with them.

Organizational Values at EmailSoldiers: How We Decided It Was Time

Ivan Ilin, our Chief Commercial Officer, likes to say that when the team was way smaller, there was no need for corporate values. There weren't a lot of newcomers, so it was easier for them to soak in the rules and principles of our agency.
In time, the team began to grow and it became clear that this seamless process won't go without support considering further growth. We'll need a system to share the team's principles with the newbies. What are these principles?
Along with that, the marketing and sales levels also started to grow — it became important to include our clients in our approach to our work. We knew the reason why clients choose us: our team is special. However, we couldn't understand what was so special about us.
The main reason to create our organizational values was a reasonable approach to the working process when each and every employee understands how the whole mechanism operates.

How We Defined Our Values

Our main goal was to find something that would be meaningful and special both for us and our clients.
We enlisted each of the then EmailSoldier's employees. With the help of a series of interviews, we found out the already formed values of each member of the team. To systematize them we collected questions to ask.
Before the interviews started Ivan had gathered the team at the office and explained to them what was going to happen and why we needed the values.
He also stated the main principle of the interviews — nothing but the truth in the answers and total anonymity.
Each interview took about 1,5 hours.
Here are some of the questions:
Do you think the company treats the employees fairly? Why? Are there any employees you would promote or fire? Why? Are there people that slow down the development of the company? What causes disputes between you and your colleagues? Would you still work here if you won $10 million? Why? What do you base your decisions on? What qualities should the CEO possess? What actions are praised and what actions are punished in your company, in your opinion? If you wanted to substitute your company as a contractor with another company, what would it be? What qualities does that company possess? Can you think of companies that are similar to yours? In what ways?
I interviewed the employees one after another in our cozy conference room at the end of the workday. By the way, back then I wasn't a part of the team yet working as an independent expert. There are good and bad sides to trusting an outsider to do such interviews. Their main task is to get the most honest answers, their position is unbiased and they won't be suspected of leading the correspondent to a certain answer.
    However, this approach has its flaws: sometimes it takes too much time to create an atmosphere of trust for the employee to open up and be ready for a straight talk. For some people, a small talk about the weather, their nice haircut, or sneakers was enough, and for others, it was a real challenge to find common themes that would lead to a conversation.
      Often folks were shy to discuss delicate workflow matters, to tell about what bothered them. It became clear instantly just by the way a person answered the question. Such answers were pretty blurry. Sometimes I managed to fix it with the help of follow-up questions. When I couldn't fix it, I switched the question over to more personal ones or we started discussing the question in the context of their previous work experience.
        In the end, we interviewed 42 people. I wrote every answer I got during the interview almost word-for-word so not to jump to any conclusions. As it turned out, that was a good decision, as I got a chance to look through the answers once again and see if I got everything right.
          The final Google doc with the answers was 210 pages long.
            Left column (content list): What questions do you have? How do you react to… What mistakes from your colleagues... Are there people in the company who… Are there people in the company whom you respect? How do you evaluate the trust level… Do you feel that you are treated fairly? How can you tell that someone should be fired? Are there any employees you would promote or fire? Why? What actions are praised and what actions are punished in your company, in your opinion? Do you have a clear understanding of… How often do you have to do… What would you do if you were the executive? What is your vision of a Company Executive?/What qualities should a Company Executive possess? Right column (answers): Are there people in the company whom you respect? For what? Answer 1 Yes, there are. These are my immediate colleagues. They know a lot and their opinion matters to me. Answer 2 Valery, because of how he treats and approaches his job. He’s calm, rational, and down-to-earth. You can't help but respect him. Nadezhda, as she’s an idea generator. She’s an ambitious employee who contributes to company development by developing herself. She’s strong-willed and she jumps at every opportunity to grow. Ivan and Vladimir, because it’s not easy to build your own company and communicate with the employees the way they do. Answer 3 Alexandra Bakushina, as she never complains. Andrey, as he is super productive. Marina, the editor, as she pays attention to every little detail. She always understands the assignment. Sofia Skorobogatova, as you don’t need to explain anything to her twice. Sergey, as I can always count on him. Answer 4 I respect people who are eager to get to the core of every problem.
            Your Corporate Blog Will Only Benefit From Content Created by Your Employees
            Then it was time for analytics. I didn't have a certain set of tools or approaches - I just sat down and started rereading the doc over and over again marking the most frequent answers. Then I looked through them and reformulated the principles. After that, I went back to other answers to see if I could find something similar.
            At the end, I had a list of principles supported by excerpts from the interviews:
            Reacting to feedback. Most employees would like their colleagues and execs to give feedback on their performance and behavior. Pointing out a mistake is treated as an opportunity for learning and growth. It’s also important to listen to the client’s opinion, as they know how their company works. They know how to interact with their clients and what they need. That’s why the client can be right. “Receiving a response to something that really matters is essential to me. This allows me to analyze my mistakes and work on them by looking from a different perspective”. “Instead of holding a grudge, I ask how I can make things right. After all, this is how we learn to do our job better”.
            At that time, I worked in finance - a system with strict protocols, hierarchy, and clear division of responsibilities. This influenced my version of values, making it too bureaucratic. Another problem was that I was an outsider with little understanding of the interactions and processes within the company. My ideas were rather far from reality, so Ivan and Vladimir, the founders, had some thoughts on the final draft:
            EmailSoldiers Values Development Freedom Responsibility Partnership Focusing on the result Transparency Development. The goal is to become the best agency in the country. The employees are aware of it, so they understand that building a reputation on the market is essential. It can be done only if there are conditions conducive to constant growth and self-improvement. Apart from gaining income, the employees see the client’s and the market’s development as the company’s goal. According to the employees, the execs, in turn, develop themselves, buy books, integrate a system of grades, invite interesting and educated people to the office, share their own experience, and trust the team with big and complex projects. Most people understand that without growth there won’t be income. The company works in a field that allows the employees to act independently. Most of them don’t have much experience yet, but they’ve managed to learn how to do their job and they do it well. The employees enumerated several ways in which they can grow. Undertaking challenging projects. The employees are eager to work on complex projects and explore new areas. They say this helps them grow. While working on such projects, they communicate with each other and consult different resources (books, articles, video tutorials). It’s important to not be afraid of joining challenging projects. Commentaries (on the right) Ivan Ilin sounds cool, but I’m not quite sure that it’s clear enough. I see the description of values as the glue for values of the “love triangle” agency (team) — employees as individuals — clients there are some great phrases below — they are more clear and transparent Vladimir Ilin The development speed is also important. You can grow in 5 years, but Ivan Ilin Not clear
            This version wasn't accepted because we had different expectations and ideas about the results, plus the lack of time. However, it wasn't absolutely worthless: this concept became a great basis for the next version.
            We continued to work on our values when I became a full-time agency employee.
            Finally, we created the second version of our organizational values and decided it was time to hear the team's thoughts about it.
            EmailSoldiers’ Values Here are the values that we came to. It’s important for us to hear what you think about them, so we ask you to take this survey. The survey structure goes as follows: a value → its description → your thoughts on the value (agree or not) → a commentary field. Your commentary is an important part of the survey, so please don’t skip it. If you feel that the value isn’t right, explain why. If you agree with the value, you can provide an example from your working experience. Prioritizing people The main resource of the company is people. The office and gadgets have no value if there are no people behind them. Competence and professionalism of the team overpowers the competence and professionalism of each employee. Developing ourselves, we contribute to the company development. That’s why we should share our experience and insights. Agree Disagree Explain your choice. If you have an example supporting the value, share it with us.
            There were lots of suggestions, questions, and discussions in our break room. The folks wanted to know why the values were formulated in this very way. It's important that people spoke out if some of the values didn't resonate with them. It made us realize that we might have gone a bit too far and distorted some of the initial ideas.
            These are the comments we got from our folks:
            Results over control 32 answers Agree Disagree Explain your choice.If you have an example supporting the value, share it with us. 32 answers Some people need to be controlled, but not everyone. Otherwise, it’ll be a trainwreck. There won't be any clear-cut solution, someone's rates will skyrocket and someone will drown in the swamp of laziness and idleness. Formulating a value in such a way will cause employees to sacrifice their responsibility for the sake of the so-called "freedom". It was all about freedom, wasn’t it? I can support this value only by speaking from my experience. In practice, absence of control in the form of “fixed time of arrival to work, strict accounting policy, and so on and so forth” makes your life way easier: Without them, you can concentrate on your tasks without any distractions. Each person develops a sense of responsibility themselves, but I think that our team has no problem with it.
            Fundamental attribution error * You should keep it in mind while evaluating your success and the actions of those around you. Fundamental attribution error is a kind of cognitive bias that causes us to explain other people’s bad behavior by the peculiarities of their character and to justify our own ill acts with the circumstances. When it comes to evaluating success, it works in the opposite direction: we tend to speak of our own success as a result of hard work, while others just get lucky: “They jumped the queue because they’re ignorant assholes'', while “I jumped the line because I’m in a hurry”. “He got a raise because he spends quality time with the boss”, while “I got a raise because I’m a valuable employee and I do a lot for the company”. When we know what fundamental attribution error is, we understand that our success is the result of team work and analyze our own decisions that led to a mistake. This helps us appreciate people around us and cultivate the spirit of mutual respect. Agree Disagree Explain your choice.If you have an example supporting the value, share it with us. The road to insanity is paved with constant self-reflection. I’ve mentioned it earlier, when I spoke about being responsible for your own life and job. There’s no need to go to extremes.
            Explain your choice. If you have an example supporting the value, share it with us. Analyzing my own actions that led to a mistake? Are you serious? Folks, I’ve got enough insecurities as it is — don’t make it harder on me with the values. I get the message, but maybe we could express it in a more subtle way? The phrasing could be changed a bit, too, I guess. Cognitive bias, attribution, fundamental… Feels like I’m reading my first texts. Maybe we could keep it simple?
            If you think some values weren’t mentioned, write about them here. I wanted to see more about being responsible for the result of your work. Maybe it’d be better to shift the focus from communication within the team to the product, as our work is more about the product (at least in my mind)
            To summarize all the comments, nearly every value was accepted except for the "fundamental attribution error". Seems like it really was too much :)
            We could go with the result if it wasn't obvious that some people didn't really agree with the values. So we collected all the comments in a new doc and… did nothing with it for half a year.
            Results over control Our employees can work whenever and however they want as long as they’re productive. Result and freedom come together: as long as the team knows what their task is and keeps their skills sharp, they can do their job the way they like. Money matters Without money the agency would be no more. Without clients who can pay for our services there wouldn't be any projects to work on. Without salary there won’t be any employees. Money matters and we won’t pretend that our agency exists only for the sake of making the world a better place. We work to grow and fulfill our ideas and money is a crucial resource. Corporate values won't pay your bills. Commentaries (on the right): Tatyana Kozlova This phrase can be ambiguous. This description also suits the term “anarchy”. Comments above are copied from original document Tatyana Kozlova Before lifting control, you need to work out a correct approach, correct goals, and a clear evaluation system. It goes for every aspect of the work. Otherwise, there won’t be a definite standard to aim for. Tatyana Kozlova If we add this value, we’ll become too reckless. After all, control is necessary, you can’t choose the result over it. Some results...
            Yet another stage of our work began with Ivan Ilin presenting his perspective on these values. To him, organizational values are the final buildup over the "Person - Team - Client" base. These are three main pillars for everything else to base on. By the way, Ivan's first comment in the first doc was exactly about this but I failed to understand and catch this idea.
            So I returned to the very first version of the corporate values but looked at it from a different angle. So far, I had worked in the team for half a year, so I got deeper into the mechanics of our workflow, processes of client engagement, and got to see how these processes actually work. I've used the concept of that "person-client-team" as a base, reread the interviews, the leaders' comments, and the comments of the team for the second version of values again and the picture was ready.
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            The Organizational Values of EmailSoldiers: From Start to Finish

            After the interviews with each employee, I formed the original version of the values.

            Values 1.0

            1. Learn from our mistakes and never repeat them.
            2. Take on difficult projects.
            3. Accept feedback.
            1. Freedom of actions.
            2. Freedom of expression.
            1. Responsibility in making decisions.
            2. Responsibility for the results of your decisions and their outcomes.
            1. Colleagues = partners.
            2. Company = partner.
            3. Clients = partners
            Focus on the result
            1. When we discuss how this or that decision is made, the employees discuss whether this decision will be useful or not, i.e. the end result.
            2. Project success is the main goal.
            1. We're as transparent with our clients as we can be, in our cost sheets, forecasts and results.
            2. Being transparent with each other is of paramount importance.

            Values 1.2

            The second version of our company values turned out to look like this (however, it had some wording issues):
            1. Prioritizing people
            2. Clients are ordinary people.
            3. Result over control.
            4. Money matters.
            5. Mistakes.
            6. Any decision of any person can be discussed.
            7. Presumption of professionalism.
            8. Understand before criticizing.
            9. We are our main rival.
            10. Everybody's open to dialogue.
            11. Fundamental attribution error.

            Values 2.0

            • Your responsibility
            • Responsibility for the team
            • Responsibility for the client
            • Your engagement
            • Engagement of the team
            • Engagement of the client
            Pursuit of improvements
            • Improvements for you
            • Improvements for the team
            • Improvements for the client
            • Your trust
            • Trust of the team
            • Trust of the client and trust in the client
            • Transparency for you
            • Transparency in the team
            • Transparency for the client
            Fun and simple
            We love both marketing and fun. The trick is that we can do both quite successfully. Let there be marketing and fun!

            How We Presented the Values to the Team

            We decided to make "a grand reveal" of the final version of the values to the whole team. We scheduled a meeting at the office, planned a party (after all, one of our organizational values is fun :D). We also organized a live stream of the main part for the remote employees.
            We were ready to get feedback from the team and adjust the values if needed, though we were sure there was no need for any adjustments.
            Ivan Ilin presented the values from his perspective and finished his speech with these words:
            All in all, if you think that something is too hard and boring, just make it simple and fun.
            This phrase became a great finale and defined our approach to the workflow. We liked it so much that we wrote it on the company's birthday cake.
            a two-tier cake covered in black chocolate with the yellow emailsoldiers logo on top and Ivan's quote written on a chocolate ribbon
            After the party, we smeared the cake in each other's faces. That's what fun is.

            Values Must Live. How We Use Them in Our Working Process

            Organizational values are a reflection of the inner culture — you can understand it by how they live. Every time we interview someone, we recollect our values and ask candidates questions that'll help us see if we look in the same direction. Our final decision is also based on our values. There were cases when really skilled folks couldn't get into the team just because our values didn't correlate. However, there were opposite situations: we were ready to sacrifice our values as the applicant was a professional. We thought that it wasn't so important to meet our values for the position they aspired to. A week later the newbie decided to leave the company on their own and it was a good sign. If it takes a week for a person to see whether they fit in or not, it means that our onboarding process works.
            Our onboarding includes a face-to-face meeting where I tell the applicant about our organizational values. This is how the newbies get the game rules and can swing into action faster.
            When we start talking about the values, the applicants don't have to spend their time searching for answers for their questions:
            1. What should I do if there are some problems with the project?
            2. What should I do if I find someone else's mistake or understand that some processes can be improved?
            3. What should I do if I'm not okay with the processes in the team?
            4. I want to take part in a task, but it seems like the team has already gathered, should I speak up?
            5. What should I do if I screw up?
            6. Are mistakes bad?
            7. How is my work evaluated?
            8. What decisions can I make myself and when should I ask for advice?
            This is just a short list of questions for our values to answer.
            The employment termination policy is also built upon organizational values. If we or the team members themselves understand that there are no more areas of common interest, we break up. It's a normal thing: in time a person can change their mindset and our values become not as close to them as before. It means they need to look for a new team that will correlate with their new principles. We cannot demand an employee to always comply with our rules 100%.
            We also draw on our organizational values while doing a performance review for each employee and team. Most of the questions in the questionnaire for feedback touch upon the corporate values.
            If we make any holistic decisions that will impact everyone in the company we do it based on our values.

            Do Not Demand That Every Employee (Should) Adhere to the Values

            There are no perfect people and we cannot say that every person in the agency sticks to the values we've created in every decision they make. As it was said in the presentation, every value is good on its own, but when they combine, they become a MEGA-value-ZORD.
            Some employees may be less engaged than they're expected to be, but they can still earn the team's trust by being responsible. Someone may have trust issues but at the same time, this person is engaged, responsible, and open. For someone, responsibility may be a weak spot, but they're engaged, they still care and try to do their best as much as they can. Someone cannot be called "the life and soul of the party" but their professional results speak for themselves and show their responsibility, engagement, and trust. It all depends on the person, which is great! We aren't trying to make everyone look the same.
            The processes in the team also do not perfectly comply with the company values. Not everything can be as transparent as we want it to be, there are cases where we're not ready to take responsibility, don't completely trust each other, or are just afraid to directly address some issues.
            In absolute terms, values are the things to strive for, a goal for every employee in particular, and the company in general. When we hit this goal, it will be time for new values.
            By the way, the organizational values also transform during the company's lifetime: new people come to the team, each of them brings something personal into the culture. New personal habits find their place, become corporate customs, and may grow into a new value.
            There may be flaws both in an employee and in the company, but what's important is the way we treat these flaws and what we strive for.

            What We Understood While Working on the Organizational Values

            1. It takes a colossal resource to create the values, especially if it's the first time. It took us two years altogether.
            2. No need to hurry if there's no time now. Better delay this job and return to it when there is an opportunity to immerse into it. Creating values is not a task that can be done in snatches.
            3. Approve the values with all the employees but don't hand them down — first, ask the team what's important to them.
            4. Introduce the values to new employees at the interviewing stage: it will make the onboarding process easier and let the newbie join the game much faster.
            5. Integrate the values into your business processes.
            6. Do not force employees to follow the values.
            7. Remember to create values with room to grow as they can stimulate the employees to develop as professionals and the whole company to improve and become better and better.
            Tatiana Kalinichenko
            Tatiana Kalinichenko
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