Of all the aspects of building a big company from scratch, nailing a great company culture is perhaps the hardest to quantify and thus also one of the hardest things to do. It’s inherently difficult because it’s all about people - there will be all different types of people in an organization and the needs of the organization will require different skills and talents at different points along the journey.
Culture is not just a mission statement on a banner. We can all cringe remembering the class scene from Office Space, “Is this good for the company?” It’s not ping pong tables or free food or a decent vacation policy. Culture is the ethos of the company in practice: the guiding views or ideals that characterize the organization.
We spend a lot of time thinking about products and markets and how much capital is needed to grow a company. But at the end of the day, a really successful company is going to need people to work together to grow it and establishing values that are going to guide your organization early can be critical.
We made a lot of mistakes growing Square 1 over the years, but the thing that I’m most proud of and that is most amazing is that we are still guided by the exact same set of core values that were outlined the day the bank opened in 2005. Every single employee is aware of the values and can recite them from memory. This is partially due to the fact that we propagandized the values in the front of notebooks, at every all hands meeting, and in every all staff email for years. Was it cheesy at times? Yes. Did it feel like overkill at times? Of course. Did the values sink into every single person at the bank and become a part of our very being? They absolutely did.
Our values are simple (which I think is the way to go with values):
Everything should be about developing and nurturing relationships both internally and externally, by serving others.
Don’t settle for the status quo. If you see an opportunity to make something better, do it.
The magic glue that drives us.
Time is of the essence. We must act with a sense of urgency.
Above all else, be open, transparent, and accountable.
Some of the ways that we put these values into practice include the following:
- Before every single employee is hired, they are presented with the values and it’s made clear that these are the guidelines that we use to run the company. We have had “Values Teams” who assess the fit and set expectations for new hires.
- We call the values out, even in the little things. If the coffee is empty and not refilled, an email might go out to remind everyone to “Be a Partner.” When there is a client that needs to close a deal on a tight deadline, you will see and hear “TNT” all over the place. And then we celebrate publicly those instances when our team lives out the values.
- Finally, we talk about it. ALL. THE. TIME. As I mentioned, every notebook had it plastered on the first page and every all hands meeting has the values on the last slide. Our values are everywhere. And we’re still innovating - in the last few weeks we put up a new Values Wall in the middle of our headquarters to highlight top performers on a quarterly basis.
Square 1 is certainly not alone in terms of putting a focus on values. I’ve always been impressed with Moz over the years and their TAGFEE code. I recently saw that one of my clients, Automated Insights, lists their values on their careers page. Deciding on core values early in a company’s life - deciding WHO you’re going to be - is one of the most important things you can do. It will define HOW you will do it which will have a profound impact on WHAT you want to accomplish.
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