Values are an important part of hiring and team building, but hard to justify the time to create them. This is a framework I have used with early stage teams to come up with values with the entire team. It works well for <10 person companies and takes around 1.5 hours. The output is a succinct list of words that the team comes up with that are the start of your core values.
Spending time creating them feels like corporate “trust fall” territory which nobody loves. The benefits can rarely be seen until you are through the work. Like many things, it’s not until they are created and used can you actually see the impact of having values. I hear time and again that a small team isn’t big enough to have values — which is never the case. The way in which the team interacts with each other, in everyday life, and in general are a set of values you already bring to the table.
With that in mind it’s helpful to understand what values are and what they can be used for. The best description I have heard comes from understanding the trifecta of mission, vision, and values. The mission is what you are going to do. The vision is what doesn’t exist that needs to. Finally values are how we behave.
When a small team claims “we are too small to have values” or “how can we have values if we don’t have any customers yet” it’s simply a matter of reflecting back to them what they already know.
They do in fact have values. I know they got to this point behaving a certain way, treating people a certain way, and communicating with others a certain way. That values system exists from before they started their company and will continue beyond it.
Therefore this values exercise is meant to get the existing frameworks to the surface, and help figure out the right behavior for your company and the people you hire.
With that lets dive in. Having run this exercise many times, I can highly recommend having an outside part (advisor/investor/friend) run it for the group.
Running the Values Exercise
Time: 1.5 hours
Materials: post it note pad + sharpie for each participant
This exercise is on the right side of cheesy (I hope!) and should be used for small teams that are going through or are about to go through a massive hiring run and will have to compare candidates against one another that may seem similar. Values are a great way to see if a person is a good fit for the team when you are stuck on whether or not to move forward, or have TWO people to choose from. I believe that values are defined as how you behave. Therefore anyone that says “we are too early to have values” I reply that your values system of how you behave in the world and how you got this far represent an existing values system. The trick is to pull that out of your team, get it down on paper, and use it to your advantage. If you have a co-founder, team lead, or individual that is not aligned with this type of system being helpful you may face some skepticism that will slow things down. I have found that if you can get them to agree to the time, they should see the benefit. If not, well then you may not have an aligned values system with that person :)
Get everyone around a table and explain that the goal of this exercise is to come away with a values system that you can use for the company for hiring, to describe values and attributes that you want to surround yourselves with.
Step 1: (0–10 minutes)
Gather everyone around the table and give them 1 pen + 1 post it pack.
Ask that each person write down the name of ANY person (living or not) that they respect. This can be a family member, friend, actor, cartoon, made up person, superhero or other — with the caveat that they respect the person and what they have done and understand the influence that person has had. This could be a grandparent that raised them, a parent that impacted their life, a sibling that made a difference — literally anyone.
Give everyone 5 minutes to write down names (1 per post it)
Step 2: (11–25 minutes)
Now go around the table and have each person say the name of the person on the card and why they picked that person.
They should express a short anecdote of why (“Superman always wants to do what is right and I loved his comics growing up”)
Step 3: (26–35)
Now have everyone write down the values and attributes (1 word per post it note) for each person they picked.
They can write down an unlimited amount of words for each person (could be 1 or could be 10)
Step 4: (36–45)
Have everyone go around and share the name of the person + the words for that person.
Each person should take their words and place them on a whiteboard by category or bunch. So for example the first person may have all separate groups on the board, however if they described two of their people as “compassionate” those would go together. The next person should go up after and either match their cards or start new groups.
Step 5: (46–60)
The next step is to start trimming down the groups of words and combine them together; Fun, Funny, Comical, Jovial, Good Sense of Humor (all go in the same bunch and so on)
The goal of the moderator here is to get the groups down to about 4–8 attributes or values
The more you cut down, the better off you will be
The output of this work is a series of words that best represents the aspirational values and attributes of the group and who you want to work with. It should be optimized to the values the group created, and leaned on when necessary. The best use cases I have seen in practice are that of when deciding between two people to hire — whichever shows the right values alignment is typically a better hire. The same is true for other use cases where the team can leave on values to make a product decision, strategic choice, or feature cut — in some cases removing someone from the team.