3 tips to align your values with your startup's culture

·5 min read

You've heard the phrase "leading by example," but what about "leading with values"?

I've always led by example by using my values as my guide. Still, it wasn’t until I founded my first company that I fully understood the importance of embedding those values into the company, too.

Integrity, individuals, impact and innovation are the "4 I values" that drive my decisions and the actions of those at my company each day. These are not just words on a wall at our HQ or on a mousepad for our remote crew, but values that everyone in the company lives and breathes. Over the last two years, these four values became even more important and continued to guide me, my family and the leaders at our company.

As organizations map out their "return to the workplace" (NOT "return to work," because we never stopped working) plans, we should not simply go back to how things were before. Instead, let’s all take a moment to redesign something that sets everyone up for success, with values as the compass. I think you’ll find this approach helps people not only survive, but thrive in the workplace.

Leading with values is, in my experience, the best leadership position to take, and there are three ways to accomplish this goal.

Leave behind old-school mentalities on workplace hierarchy

The tone of the company's culture comes from the top. The culture you envision for your company will only come about if your employees believe in the practices that you are asking them to implement.

At some point in your career — probably right out of school, a few years in or somewhere in the middle — you experienced a company where treating lower-level employees with less respect is just "a part of the job." Companies with this type of "paying your dues" mentality tend to work these lower-level employees like grunts until they burn out and leave.

Or they eventually crawl their way up into management-level positions, and the cycle perpetuates itself as they deride the newer crop of employees, eroding any semblance of a healthy culture.

This is not the way.

As a leader, if you want your work environment to indicate inclusivity, support, collaboration and have the essence of a team mentality, you must set the precedent right away. This means stripping away the hierarchy that accompanies work titles and making it clear that your company values contribution based on merit, regardless of position. You are one team, united in your purpose to deliver on your mission, based on your values. This level setting ensures that everyone has skin in the game, and no one has the leeway to treat people poorly.

Don't get caught in an ivory tower mindset

Early on in my career, I began sharing an office when I could. Those office spaces were purposely not what anyone would consider cool or nice “digs" — not the furniture and certainly not the view. Even as CEO now, I’ve had someone on the team describe my current office as a closet. But it gets the job done.

Simple signals like this send a powerful message, and the signal must remain consistent. Don't take a limo; rent a cheap car. Don't fly first class; fly coach. These may seem like minor details, but one of the biggest pitfalls any CEO can encounter is falling victim to an ivory tower mindset — when you become so out of touch with the people you manage, your employees start to notice.

Make a cognizant effort to know your people. Implement a "management by walking around" strategy. Don't sit in your office all day; get out on the floor among your people. Drop by their desks and ask them how their day is going. Eat lunch in the break room. Put in the effort to attend new hire onboarding.

Not physically back in the office? Drop into Slack channels and Zoom meetings. I once "Zoom bombed" a baby shower for one of our crew members just to hear all the well wishes, and it made my day and theirs. Overall, just be present and humanize your workspace. It pays off in spades.

Be thoughtful and consistent with workplace practices

The tone of the company's culture comes from the top. The culture you envision for your company will only come about if your employees believe in the practices that you are asking them to implement. More importantly, you will not grow a solid culture if you don’t give these initiatives and practices 100% of your own effort.

For example, one new initiative we rolled out last year is a campaign we call "Free2Focus." Twice a week, the SailPoint crew is asked to avoid booking meetings for a couple of hours during Free2Focus time. Not only does this address Zoom fatigue, it also gives our crew the chance to catch their breath whichever way suits them best — whether that's taking a walk, helping with their children's schooling or just turning off the camera for a bit.

If I want my team to show themselves some grace during the week, I've found that I need to apply the same practice. This means not setting up meetings during Free2Focus, not sending emails all hours of the day and night and not judging people for taking breaks when they need them. I trust my team to get the job done largely on their own time and own their own terms. I promise, your employees’ performance will be better because of it.

Being a CEO is more than building on a vision, a product or an idea. It's about leading your people with values to accomplish mutual goals in a way that doesn't zap them of their morale or dignity. It's easy to get caught up in all the things that come with a job, but if you don't put in the effort to immerse yourself and your values into the entire company, you'll end up too big for your own good — and certainly too big for your company's good.

It won't happen overnight, but remember, the smallest things are often the ones that have the biggest impact. If you’re the leader, lead by example. It’s the only way to build teams that stand the test of time.

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