This is part of a two-month series on the importance of company culture. Find more posts about culture here.

Zappos's value: create fun and a little weirdness

One of Zappos values, as displayed in their HQ

The other day I briefly touched on the importance writing out your company values, so I thought I’d dive into the process in a little more detail.

Writing down values for your company may seem a little corny (in the age of skepticism, saying you “stand for something” is rare) and a little unnecessary (“we know our values just fine!”). But it’s an immensely powerful way to help guide the company culture in the right direction.

I want to emphasize that no one person sets the values of a company. Try to do that and you’ll get so much pushback you end up halfway across the street. Instead, you need to work with your whole company to develop them.

My steps:

1. Send out a survey to the staff.

Ask what phrases, values, and attitudes they think your company stands for. Try not to structure it too much, as you want honest answers. Consider making it anonymous so people aren’t self-conscious.

2. Get thoughts from your leadership team.

They’ll certainly be a big influence; they are pushing a vision which should be part of your values. Of course, if none of your employees echo the leadership’s thoughts, something is wrong.

3. Dig through responses to find the common threads that will become your values.

Company value: Eat our own dog food (and like it too)

These may be phrased slightly differently, but you’ll find common answers. Pare these down into a set of values. Don’t choose too many. If people can’t remember the company values, how are they supposed to follow them? Zappos‘s original employee-generated list had 37 which were cut down to 10, we have 7 (which I still think may be too many). Write a brief explanation of the definition and importance of each value (it’s easy for a single sentence to be misconstrued).

An important note: choose unique values and unique phrasings. Nobody gives a damn that your company cares about something generic like “leadership”. Much more compelling and interesting is a company that says “don’t be a dick”. It’s a lot easier to remember, too.

4. Present the values to the staff.

It can help to have your CEO kick this off to give it legitimacy. Talk about why culture is important (I cover some of that here). Be sure to emphasize the values came from all of them. Finally, walk through each value. I’m a big fan of a visual treatment, since some folks are visual learners (see our value posters here).

Allow for questions, and be prepared for some skepticism. You don’t need to defend this as if it’s perfect (it’s probably not) and some good-natured joking about the inherent corniness of company values isn’t always bad. As we’ll cover in future posts, the more crucial thing is reinforcing these values and their importance.

Do you have your own company values? Share them in the comments!

A quick note: my process for determining values was heavily inspired by Tony Hsieh. You should absolutely pick up his book.

Zappos photo courtesy of Robert Scoble.