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A growing list of company values

Posted on:January 17, 2024

Company values are tricky. At their best, they serve as a guiding light for making critical decisions. At worst, they come across as hollow or inauthentic. But I admire companies that start with their values and strive to live by them. Even if I don’t agree with their values, I respect that they stand for something.

I recently listened to Lenny’s Podcast, where he and his guest, Will Larson, discussed setting values. They offered some good advice, such as making sure your values could hypothetically be reversed to evaluate whether they’re worth having in the first place. If something couldn’t be a value if reversed, it’s probably not worth having as a value because it’s just a truism.

For instance, I once worked at a company where there was debate over including kindness as a value. At the time, I strongly supported adding kindness, but in hindsight, I can see the other side. Is kindness so obvious that it needs to be a value? Would any company not want kindness as one of their values?

Another common suggestion for values is to limit the number of them. A lot of folks feel like you shouldn’t have more than four or five core values, or else they’ll start to accumulate to a point of being meaningless, which I can totally appreciate.

But as a company grows, it can be challenging to figure out what to do with early values. Most people say you should keep iterating on them. I’ve found this difficult in practice when squared with the previous idea of keeping the number of them small. New team members often bring fresh ideas. Not necessarily better, but additive. If it’s just re-writing the previous values, early team members may not always appreciate the changes. It can feel like losing some of the soul and culture of a company that you’ve worked so hard to build.

So how do you strike a balance between preserving values that got you where you are, and the people behind them, and allowing new ones to contribute?

One idea is to ignore the advice of having only a small number of them, and instead have a growing list of values where each new team member can add one. It wouldn’t be that anything goes. I think the CEO or executive team should have to approve the additions. New values shouldn’t be able to contradict previous ones. But this way, every new teammate would have a chance to leave their unique imprint on the company.

Anyways, it’s something I hope to try at some point. I’m guessing some organizations out there have taken a similar approach to what I’m suggesting. Though I don’t know enough about how those were actually implemented, the closest I’m aware of might be Ray Dalio’s Principles that he used at Bridewater. So if anyone has tried something similar, I’d love to hear from you and learn about your experience.