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Are your values a motivational poster or a battle standard.

Are your company values a boring motivational poster stuck on the wall, or a battle standard that you lead your team under?

June 24, 2020

Make Bamboo Great Again

Company values, we’ve all seen them, every company has them. Large companies spend significant amounts of money, defining a nice need set of principles and company morals.

They vary from pseudo-political manifestos, like Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream’s three-part mission. Through to Coca-Cola, which is utterly uninspiring; Quality, Excellence, Integrity, and Respect.

The New Motivational Posters

But something I’ve consistently experienced is once they’re defined, companies fail to implement their values in any meaningful way. The general process starts with paying a third party consultant a large sum of money to squish the values into an online e-learning module. The company then wedges the e-learning into their learning management system.

The company then presents the values with a massive fanfare in a company all hands. Every employee begrudgingly clicks through the e-learning module. Eighteen months later, when there has been no measurable cultural improvement, a survey highlight that only 5% of the company even remembers the initial company values.

The organisation fires the consultants and hire a new set. Rinse and repeat, ad infinitum.

Company values have become motivational posters for the technological revolution.

Panda Motvational Poster

Battle Standards

Some people use this behavior pattern to dismiss company values as corporate bullshit, arguing that values and culture come from the bottom up instead of the top down. There is some truth to this, and enforcing management generated values is never going to work.

However, documenting and sharing the values that your company is a great way to help to keep a great culture alive and amplify the great in your employees.

Having defined and visible values are critical during the hiring process if you want to hire people who fit and multiply the great things you do.

But putting them on a fancy website, or some pretty printed material isn’t enough.

Your company values need to be a battle standard that you raise above your head as you lead your team into the metaphorical battle of day to day work.

Make Your Own.

What if you don’t have any? Then make your own!

I’m lucky that Klarna has a well-defined set of leadership principles that align pretty closely with my view on how to deliver exceptional results. But they lean towards how we make products and deliver results. Our operating model allows us to some flexibility in how we approach people-leadership.

This flexibility is fantastic, but it didn’t help me when I joined. I was having a crisis of confidence in how I should lead the team. This crisis was what lead me to create my team lead manifesto.

The manifesto has been a turning point for me. It’s allowed me to focus on what makes me good at what I do and keep my values at the forefront of my mind.

Measure and Improve.

If you have a good set of company values, you need to make sure you are living them. It’s no use just reviewing them every year when it comes to your mandatory e-learning session.

If the company values aren’t second nature to you, a great way to help keep them in mind is to measure yourself periodically. I do this with my manifesto and publish the results here to keep me accountable.

Fundamental Disagreement.

But what if I fundamentally disagree agree my companies values? Should I ignore them? No, you should quit.

It’s never likely that your personal views will 100% align with that of your companies. You will always have to pick a few things that you have to either leave at home or try and influence for the better.

But if you’re fundamentally opposed to everything written in your companies values, then you should walk away. You’re in the wrong place, and nothing good will come of this relationship.

The Danger of Weaponised Company Values

There are some dangers with company values. They can be weaponised. As an example for Facebooks notorious ‘Move Fast, Break Things’. Multiple startups have co-opted this statement as an excuse to deliver terrible software.

Additionally, one of Uber’s early company values about trust always starting at full. This value mutated into people never being able to challenge assumptions and opinions. “What? You don’t trust my opinion.” would be the general retort when anyone tried to challenge the status quo.

So please don’t put your values on the wall, hold them high above your head and live them.


Phil Bennett

Phil is an engineering manager at Klarna with 20 years experience in the tech industry. He has an empathetic team lead who is always striving to get better at helping others get better. He also has an unhealthy interest in burgers.