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The Method we Used to Define our Core Values

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Someone once told me that the company you build is a reflection of your own image. It will reflect your personality, your strengths and also your weaknesses.

But what happens when you create a company along with 3 other co-founders? How do you manage with 4 strong minded personalities, styles and priorities? Will your company suffer from some sort of personality disorder caused by the differences and complexities each founder brings to the table?

Like in any association of human beings, you should embrace diversity as an asset, an advantage. And like in any group, we need a set of solid guidelines to steer the ship in the best way possible and fuel an organization with energy and character.

Values are the glue that makes us stick together as a group of people. If chosen meticulously, they will help us take risks, brave some storms and make important decisions that in time, will enable us as founders to reflect and check ourselves.

The process we implemented was unique, quick and extremely rewarding and I share it below in detail.

You Don’t Select Values, you Discover them

What did we have in mind when we founded Swimm? What were our deep motivations and concerns?

Sometimes startup founders tend to go a long way and time without having given such questions much thought. But it was clear to me as a second time CEO that we needed to address this issue at an early stage of a company, especially one with multiple founders. I met with my friend Rotem Katzir who is an amazing executive coach and HR evangelist and has tremendous experience in building and maintaining a company culture.

She told me something that resonated: you don’t select or define company values, you discover them. She even reminded me of the famous quote from Michaelangelo (See on that subject: how we discovered our values at Culture Amp):

“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”

The methodology she proposed was to select a few examples of challenges and dilemmas we had as founders at the very early stages of the creation of the company, analyze them and figure out what were the values that we had in us, that made us decide what we decided.

That’s how I eventually ended up with this process (I hope it might help others to do the same, and of course improve it):

1. Each co-founder thinks about their top 10 values essential to the company.

Our goal was to eventually drill down to the 3-6 core values of the company reflecting our natural inclination toward efficiency. This brain dump resulted in something like 40 values on a white board.

2. Clusters around recurring ideas

Of course there was some overlap. We started merging recurring values, and eventually thematically grouping all the rest under 5 categories. We grouped values such as: Fairness, down to earth and friendship under one category for example. Another one was: Disruptive, ambitious and brave.

When grouping values in this stage, you start to compromise in the positive sense of a healthy dialogue within a company management. Compromising is essential because you have to learn to mitigate and bridge these gaps to find common ground on a day to day basis but also eventually you’ll need to be able to stand behind the selected common values.

These 5 clusters are the result of a long negotiation, elimination, grouping and translation process:

Good Guys | Salt of the Earth | Derech Eretz | Fairness

Trust | Integrity | Loyalty | Commitment | Accountability

Disruptive | Brave | Courage | Determined

Learning | Personal Growth | Reactive

High Standard | Professional| Excellent | Mature | Aesthetic

3. Tweak the concepts within the idea’s clusters.

When you throw ideas on a white board it’s usually quite raw, so at this point I decided to use the help of our Head of Marketing, Chen Veiber (a wordsmith) to challenge us how we phrase and reframe our ideas. This process happens when you still have different groups of values and ideas and you need to calibrate, and make each word purposeful and accurate.

A thematic group that included values such as: “salt-of-the earth, fair, friendly” was translated into: “We really care. We are down to earth, friendly and fair”.

4. Extract + test.

This is a critical step because once you agree on the name of each group you’ve done 80% of the work and you are almost done, but not quite..

As Rotem suggested earlier, now is a good time to check if you live in LALALand or you actually managed to unveil your core values. Go back to important decisions (Fundraising, first hires, first product decisions) and see if the process you made making those decisions are reflected in these values, complement them and align accordingly. If so, proceed with caution to the last and important step.

5. Reality check with your peers or first employees.

This process is not a one-way street and it’s not set in stone. Early stage startups tend to gather an amazing group of first hires, by far exceptional and talented people who the founders think highly of and are enthusiastic about the product. And so the last step was rolling it out to the team, showing the end result, gathering feedback, and calibrating. The result of which was that the core values shifted from “theirs” to “ours”.

Recap and 5 moments of truth

We came up with 5 values true to Swimm:

1. We really care. We are down-to-earth, friendly and fair.

2. Trust is key. We honor disclosure, integrity and commitment.

3. Boldly drive change. Make waves with courage and curiosity.

4. Learning & growth mindset. We foster agility, personal growth, empathy and trying again.

5. Masters of our craft. We take pride in trailblazing, excelling and paying it forward.

It’s a given that this list in time will somewhat evolve as we grow and progress as a company and people. But as opposed to a company culture that is flexible, company values need to provide a solid base.

Now is the time to get to work and use our values to make smart business decisions, in hiring, in onboarding new employees, in culture code, and even in our product. Like an internal compass, helping us navigate and keeping track of which direction we are swimming.

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Oren Toledano is Co-Founder of Swimm , and the former CEO and Co-Founder of ITC.tech and has lead various international technological training hubs.