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How to Define Company Values the Way One of Entrepreneur's 'Top Culture' Winners Does Vanderbloemen Search Group's CEO sat down with his team of 10 to figure out 'their kind of crazy.'

By Heather R. Huhman Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


For company values to be truly meaningful, employees need to buy into them. Yet, many leaders think they alone should define these values and then pass them on to employees.

Related: Stand for Something: How to Establish Authentic Core Values

Instead, William Vanderbloemen, founder and CEO of Vanderbloemen Search Group, advises entrepreneurs to define values early on with employees. At the Houston-based church-staffing company, Vanderbloemen sat down with his then team of 10 to figure out their "kind of crazy" -- or what made the organization unique.

Each employee wrote his or her ideas on a Post-it note. Then, those note swere hung up on an office wall for several months to give people time to reflect. From there, the team members narrowed down their preliminary values to the company's core nine.

"I believe we've stayed true to our values because rather than a top-down approach, I looked for values that are embedded in our people," Vanderbloemen told me via email. Because of these strong values, Vanderbloemen Search Group was honored as one of Entrepreneur's Top Company Cultures last year.

But because every company is unique, entrepreneurs must determine the right approach for their individual team.

Pay attention to successes.

Early on, Madison, Wis.-based weather network and analytics company Understory tried different approaches to leadership and execution. This allowed the organization to figure out the best way to operate. But, it also provided insights about the company's values.

Related: 4 Ways to Bring Your Organizational Values to Life

"We found that every time we achieved critical milestones or knocked our goals out of the park, our team exemplified certain traits," founder and CEO Alex Kubicek said in an email.

These common traits became the basis for Understory's values. Since employees already had connections to these pillars, it was easy for team members to incorporate them into their actions.

Think about your own employees' skills and traits. Which ones unite them as a team? Which ones help them to succeed? Take this list of qualities, and discuss it with employees. Find out what resonates with them and what aligns with the company mission. This will help the organization form unique values that represent the team as a whole.

Create "shocking rules."

Companies like Facebook create "shocking "rules," or rules meant to get employees to stop and think about the company's mission. At Facebook, one of these rules is "move fast and break things." The underlying message is to disrupt the status quo. No matter how the company changes, that shocking rule is always there to guide employees.

Deputy, a New South Wales, Australia-based workforce management platform, also has a shocking rule: "Get over yourself."

"Our mission at Deputy is to improve the lives of hourly employees and business owners," CEO Ashik Ahmed said via email. "To achieve our mission we need to uphold a culture that is selfless."

Draft several different "rules," then present them to employees. Clearly explain what each one means and how it's tied to the company's identity. Then, have them vote on which rule resonates most with them.

All potential rules should embody the company and help impact employees' actions. Focus on being short and memorable. Also, make sure the language reflects how people actually talk in the office.

Know when to redefine values.

The main purpose of company values is to guide employees. But if the company goal changes, then so should the values.

For example, when the New York City-based internship and entry-level job search marketplace WayUp was founded, the main goal was growth. But, after a few years, things had changed.

"Our original values were too execution-oriented," CEO and co-founder Liz Wessel said in an email. "However, as we continued to evolve as an organization, we realized that our core principles didn't set the tone for how to get things done, and didn't focus on the intentions behind the actions."

Meet with employees and discuss the progression of the company. Talk about how the values have been successful in the past but also how they might fail in the future.

Also, consider other aspects of the company that might have changed over the years. For instance, the company's target customer demographic might have evolved or expanded. If so, define new values that will help your employees meet those new needs.

Tie values to recognition.

It's easy for employees to get excited about values when they're first established. But, over time, values get pushed out of the spotlight.

This is why Boston-based video advertising platform ViralGains ties company values to employee recognition. Each month, employees choose a peer they feel has truly exhibited the company's values. Then, during an all-hands meeting, each individual presents an award to the person he or she nominated and explains why that chosen co-worker was so inspiring.

Related: Inspire Employee Loyalty With Recognition Rooted in Company Values

"This award gave our employees a means to voice genuine, unforced recognition within the organization, creating tremendous buy-in and appreciation of our core values," president and COO Dan Levin said via email.

Another option is to offer value perks. Whether it's a bonus or an extra day off, reward employees who positively represent your company and what it stands for.

Heather R. Huhman

Career and Workplace Expert; Founder and President, Come Recommended

Waldorf, Md.-based Heather R. Huhman is a career expert, experienced hiring manager and president of Come Recommended, the PR solution for job search and HR tech companies. She writes about issues impacting the modern workplace.

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