The difference between culture and values

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by Alex Bard
13 December 2016

Alex Bard, CEO of Campaign Monitor, explains why asking for feedback from your team is important and how you can practically use it to change a business. If your employees get asked to give their opinions you’d better be ready to take that information and act on it...

When I joined Campaign Monitor as CEO, the very first thing I did was arrange a one-to-one with every employee so that I could listen to and learn from their thoughts and feedback. I asked employees three questions: Firstly, what did they love about the company? Secondly, what can we improve? And thirdly, what would they do if they were me? In response to the first question most people said some variant of "the culture", but when I asked for more fidelity on what that meant I received a large variety of responses - from loving who they work with, being able to work on interesting problems to the perks such as our catered lunches.

There was a general uncertainty around the distinction between a company’s culture and its values. It’s an uncertainty that many companies face, but few bother to clarify. For me, values have to take centre stage. Get the values of a company right, and the culture will follow.

A company’s culture is in a constant state of evolution, while its values make up the foundation

When I talk about values I’m referring to the deeply held principles that guide our decisions - in a company setting, these need to be more than buzzwords. Think about it - if you don’t understand your own personal values, or if they are constantly shifting, you’ll likely experience an identity crisis. The same goes for companies. Job role and skillset aside, every employee should be clear about the goal they are all driving towards, and your company values must underpin that goal.

A company’s culture, however, is formed by its people and therefore subject to variation and gradual change. For instance, different departments may have their own unique cultures, shaped by factors like number of employees, location, job discipline and working practices. Great culture is something that develops organically on the back of strong, clearly defined company values.

Prioritise your core values

Prioritise meaningful values that will act as a guide for your employees, and phrase them in a way that reflects your company’s tone of voice. For example, our number one value at Campaign Monitor is "make mum proud" - this serves as a reminder to our employees to take pride in their work and treat their co-workers with honesty and respect, in a voice that pays homage to the company’s Aussie routes.

Reinforce them

There’s no point having values unless they are being represented on a day-to-day basis. We display our five core values on the walls of each office, so that if you asked any one of our employees, they could (I hope) recite them on the spot. We also built a 'shout out' app so that anyone can praise another employee for fulfilling a value, which then gets posted to the company slack channel for all to see. Details like these serve as little reminders to all our employees that the company values should always be at the core of what they do. And while we would never want to impose our values on anyone, we look to hire people who already share the same values as your company.

Hire the person, not the CV

I’ve always believed in hiring for attitude over aptitude. Companies typically hire people based on what they have done, and fire based on who they are. What does this tell us? If we focused more on getting to know the person behind the application form, determining if their values match those of the company, we’d give ourselves and our hires a much better chance of success. It also ensures that new employees can hit the ground running. Taking time to really find out what matters to a person will hopefully mean you avoid any culture shock.

What if you suddenly grow from one founder to 10 people, to 1,000 people?

Technology companies often experience growth and international expansion at an unnaturally fast pace. As the CEO of a company that has doubled in size in just one year and is on pace to double again in the next year, I know only too well the challenges this brings. Managing several offices across different locations, which are growing at different rates, presents all manner of challenges - growth at this scale renders your company values even more critical, as they need to create the framework on which to base key decisions like hiring talent into new offices.

We all want to be proud of our company culture, but a good company culture comes down to more than ping pong tables and free food - it stems from the values. If your company values aren’t clearly defined, they likely won’t be reflected in day-to-day company life and the challenges that come with company growth will be exacerbated. These values need to be meaningful, true to the company’s tone and reinforced among employees, so that they have the impact they need to translate to a culture you can be really proud of.

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