Buy My Book, "The Manager's Path," Available March 2017!

Monday, February 15, 2016


I had a realization, towards the end of my last job, about company values. What are company values (aka "Core Values")? Well, here are some examples: Zappos, Etsy, Facebook. My former company had 10:
1. Everyone deserves a Cinderella Experience
2. Dream big and go after it!
3. Make the most with what you have...scrappiness is a virtue
4. Debating, honest conversations and collaborating make the company stronger
5. Happiness and positivity is a choice
6. Embrace the RTR family and bring your authentic self into the office each day
7. Bring your best intentions to everything and trust that others do the same
8. Adapt and learn from everything you do
9. Roll up your sleeves and get involved. Everyone should be accessible and involved with the day to day elements of RTR
10.We are all founders of Rent The Runway
When I first started, I was skeptical about the purpose of Core Values. Zappos, the most famous advocate of this concept, seemed a bit weird. I am not a conformist, and I felt like expecting a diverse group of people to embrace the same set of values and beliefs was a bit Orwellian.

What changed my mind? As part of the company review process, we would ask people to mention ways in which their peers embraced the core values. One person might write, for example, "When Jane suggested we try this crazy experiment to increase the performance of our product page, she encouraged us to dream big and go after it." You weren't required to spell out how each person met every value, just give one or two instances where they had met them.

Is it a good idea to use values as part of the performance review process? Well, for better or worse, one of the things that indicates success within a company is how well a person is capable of working within the culture of that company. This can be a bad thing, when the culture of the company is confused with the color of the company, the gender of the company, the background of the people in the company. That is not a very specific culture, and it is likely to cause bias that does not actually serve to reduce the collaboration issues that you might worry about in heterogenous groups. When company values are more explicit, however, they give you something that is (hopefully) less correlated with how people look and more correlated with how people communicate, make decisions, and behave.

I wrote, read, and delivered many reviews, always involving a section on values. I also observed many "core value stories," where employees would stand up and tell about another person or group who went above and beyond and how that tied back to some of our core values. I got to see over and over again examples of people exhibiting these values and the ways they presented themselves.

At some point, I realized there was a pattern. The people in the company who were beloved by all, happiest in their jobs, and arguably most productive, were the people who showed up for all of these values. They may not have been the people who went to the best schools, or who wrote the most beautiful code, in fact they often weren't the "on-paper" superstars. But when it came to the job, they were great, highly in-demand, and usually promoted quickly. They didn't all look the same, they didn't all work in the same team or have the same skillset. Their only common thread was that they didn't have to stretch too much to live the company values, because the company values overlapped with their own personal values.

What's the takeaway here? Well, we often talk about "culture." By now, we know that beer and ping pong tables aren't culture. Many of us fear that "culture" can be a dog whistle for "people who look like me." And yet, people are more likely to be successful and happy if they are in a company with a culture that matches their values. My experience has led me to conclude that looking for the values of your company as part of your interviewing process is probably at least as important as the technical and skills screening, in finding the best employees.

Why is this post called Framing?

The way you ask people to look for values is going to make a big difference in what they look for, and what they see. You might have 10 values, as RTR did. Would you really want to ask every interviewer for a "yes/no" on all 10? Probably not. But if you boiled that question down to "culture fit", do you think the interviewers are going to think about the company values? Or are they going to think about whether this person looks like them, talks like them, is "a person they could get a beer with?" The way you frame the question of culture is important, and if you aren't explicit, people may skip over the details and go with their bias.

If you agree with me that values are valuable, I encourage you to put them in your interview process, and make them explicit. Don't ask for "culture fit", list the values and ask people to mention any they noticed the person definitely meeting or definitely not meeting. Prime the interviewers beforehand with the list of values, so they know what to look for. And then, let me know how it goes! Because this is still theoretical for me, and I would love to hear your experience, as well as any counterpoints to what I have suggested.


  1. The concept of ‘values’ is obviously well-intentioned, but I don’t think it does a good job of defining the specific culture of a company (or club, or non-profit, etc) or what makes it different from others. I think a better way to frame it would be ‘cultural priorities’ or ‘operational priorities’. I also think these will inevitably (and should) change as a company grows / changes.

    When people are asked to pick their top 5 personal values, they’re usually things everyone would say they value - it doesn’t do much to explain their priorities.

    Some values people might list are:

    Which of these would you say is not something you personally value? I would guess most or all people value all 5 of those traits.

    I think there a more sophisticated & informative comparable question would be “What are your priorities?” or “Which way do you lean?” The best answers would explain where you’re positioned on a scale that has two good values that are opposite of each other.

    -I prefer to gather my thoughts before talking through an issue, rather than talking through something out loud with others
    -I prefer to wait out confrontation until it’s absolutely necessary rather than bring an issue to a head at the earliest point possible
    -I prefer to keep my personal life & work life separate, rather than have some of my closest friends also be my co-workers

    Now to look company values in the same way. I will use RTR’s 10 values as an example.

    I would say these 4 are values that almost all companies would most to have. They generally don’t have an equally useful value on the other side of a scale that may make more sense at a different company.
    2. Dream big and go after it!
    5. Happiness and positivity is a choice
    7. Bring your best intentions to everything and trust that others do the same
    8. Adapt and learn from everything you do

    These are values that some companies may not agree with, because their priorities are different. These are often one side of a scale where another value sit on the other side.

    3. Make the most with what you have...scrappiness is a virtue
    The other side: Your time is highly valuable - delegate accordingly (An expensive law firm may lean this way instead)
    4. Debating, honest conversations and collaborating make the company stronger
    The other side: Respect the hierarchy (a multi-billion dollar family run business or Chinese manufacturing company may lean this way instead)

    6. Embrace the RTR family and bring your authentic self into the office each day
    The other side: Priority #1 is getting your work done (a company with lots of contract workers may lean this way instead)

    9. Roll up your sleeves and get involved. Everyone should be accessible and involved with the day to day elements of RTR
    10.We are all founders of Rent The Runway
    The other side: (some mixture of the other sides of values #3 & #4)

    So what do I mean by all of this?

    - I generally think company values should be framed as priorities between two ‘values’ that are on opposite sides of a sliding scale, and they are there because they work best for the company at this point in its existence

    - I know next to nothing about how to hire the right people. Maybe giving some of those ‘strength finder’ tests to potential hires (the ones that ask you tons of questions on sliding scales) could help you understand what someone’s priorities (values) are.

    -The concept of changing your values / priorities as a company grows is probably a controversial topic. When someone signs up for X and 18 months later they’re sitting at Y, that undoubtedly detracts from employee retention. There are probably a bunch of parallels with the culture change that happens when a company has to transition from ‘peacetime’ to ‘wartime’. This is a whole other topic in of itself.

    (In case you can’t tell, I lean towards liking to talk through my thoughts out loud with others)

    1. Lots to unpack here.
      I think that doing some deeper exploration of values is going to be important here, because you and I have different understanding of what they mean. Values are things that sound good to most people, I agree. But "sounds good to me" is not what makes something a value. Let me dive in.

      The issue of "values" is that, specifically, you may value lots of things, but what are your TOP values? When forced to make a choice for personal top 3, or top 5, that is where you really figure out what people value. Having done a bunch of work with this myself, I completely disagree that personal values are generic or don't explain their priorities. Perhaps more importantly, personal values DO explain the way people react to things. If someone does something contrary to your personal values, you will get upset. Really upset. Probably what might be viewed even as "irrationally" upset. If you aren't looking at your personal values through the lens of "what make you deeply unhappy when it is not met or violated" then you haven't really gotten past surface level nice shit. What pisses you off? Do people breaking rules piss you off? Do people hiding information from you piss you off? Do people neglecting their relationships piss you off? Look to that place to find what you really value. Once you feel the emotion, it is easier to understand them beyond platitudes.

      As for the RTR values you think every company would have, well, I don't think that's correct. Happiness and Positivity are a Choice, for example, is a notably controversial value amongst people I know, and not one I personally have the easiest time with. Not every company values trust, or happiness, or dreaming big. Again, moving from value as "things you think sound nice," to something bigger, something that can actually predict where people will work well together or not. Values are things that, when they don't match, people experience serious friction in their interactions. Many companies do not value every employee dreaming big, or expect people to just assume best intentions in their interactions. That's not to say that they don't sometimes appreciate that, but it's different than having it as a value.

      That being said, I agree that there is a level of cultural change as companies grow, and I think a big question is how do values need to change and when? "Scrappiness is a value" may be great at 100 employees and awful and shortsighted at 10000. And I also agree that there is a degree here of prioritization. But I encourage you to do some work on really exploring values (particularly your own) more deeply. What makes you irrationally mad? It is probably people violating a personal value. Once you feel the depth of reaction that values can cause for you personally, I think it is easier to think about them as a set of corporate behaviors and norms.

  2. Values have been baked into the interview process where I work, I haven't been there long (and the training started in the summer of 2015), but a couple observations/comments:
    - find it to be a more concrete way of defining what 'culture fit' means - having clarity about the rubric means not needing to default to my interpretation which has been 'would i want to grab a beer with this person after work?'
    - we have each interview focus on a particular value - it's hard to probe about multiple things, but the interesting thing to me has been by focusing on one in particular, I end up being able to assess the candidate on other values.
    - it's a helpful way of at a minimum remembering the values, and also internalizing them. asking about them in an interview has been helpful in figuring out how values apply to me and can manifest in my role

    Also your post makes me think of this one on minimum viable superorganisms (, in particular the author's recipe for one:

    "Selfish individuals pursuing shared goals (arising from shared underlying incentives), held together by a Prestige Economy which consists of two activities: (1) seeking status by attempting to advance the superorganism’s goals, and (2) celebrating (i.e., sucking up to) those who deserve it."

    A values framework is a way of codifying what individuals and behaviors in an organization will be celebrated/given status, and in that case it's a good idea to find alignment between the org and a candidate.

  3. Thanks again for a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay. As you know I come from organization that is quite big on the “culture” and “cultural-fit” dimensions.

    First of all, I think most of the “cultural values” that you've cited above from your previous job sound to me more like “behavioral characteristics” that ought to follow from unsaid “cultural values”. Other commentators above have said as much (“Which of these would you say is not something you personally value”?). In your list, 4) and 9) could be broadly interpreted as “values”, and 10) definitely is. The rest seem like they are behaviors that could apply to any company or any industry. As such, they don’t state that company’s values in any way.

    Interestingly enough, what was remarkable about “Jane” was not that she performed a “crazy” experiment (and thus fulfilled Value 2), but that she treated herself as a “founder” (Value 10), at which point the floodgates of her imagination (and presumably other admirable qualities) were opened, and that led to her fulfilling Value 2.

    Your intuition that attitudes towards gender, color and background ought to be values is correct. Unless a company explicitly states that these are core values, one cannot assume that they are, and it is then legitimate, in my opinion, to question a company on these values.

    The Wall Street firm (now defunct) Salomon Brothers encouraged a cut-throat, competitive environment in its heyday. Even IBM, in earlier days, would sponsors competitive projects to move the same problem in order to achieve (hopefully) a better outcome. I’m not saying these companies are wrong, but that was their culture.

    The following is a statement of Business Principles from a public company that seems to stress attitudes rather than behaviors.

    • Our clients’ interests always come first
    • Our assets are our people, capital and reputation
    • Our people are our greatest asset – we say it often and with good reason. It is only with the determination and dedication of our people that we can serve our clients, generate long-term value for our shareholders and contribute to the broader public
    • Our goal is to provide superior returns to our shareholders
    • We take great pride in the professional quality of our work
    • We stress creativity and imagination in everything we do
    • We make an unusual effort to identify and recruit the very best person for every job
    • We offer our people the opportunity to move ahead more rapidly than is possible at most other places
    • We stress teamwork in everything we do
    • The dedication of our people to the firm and the intense effort they give their jobs are greater than one finds in most other organizations
    • We constantly strive to anticipate the rapidly changing needs of our clients and to develop new services to meet those needs
    • Our business is highly competitive, and we aggressively seek to expand our client relationships
    • Integrity and honesty are at the heart of our business.

    You can decide what’s missing/unstated/disingenuous about them. However, I do think they are of a different character from RTR.

  4. Guidelines for setting company values, from the Art of Demotivation by Dr. E.L. Kersten.

    Although the tone of this book is tongue-in-cheek, I've seen this in several companies I've worked for, particularly #4. I would agree that it is important to try for a culture fit during the interview process, but a person's true nature only appears when they start working for you, despite the promotion of values internally.

    Guideline 1:

    The development of your company’s core values should be outsourced to consultants. Executives are often tempted to perform this task themselves, but when they do, the values they articulate tend to have too many references to “profitability” and “shareholder value”—things for which their employees unashamedly have no regard.

    Guideline 2: Core values should not be anchored to any transcendent social values.

    ...your value statements should be peppered with phrases like “quality products,” “industry leader,” “innovative,” and “customer satisfaction.” These expressions have the benefit of generating widespread assent, while at the same time being devoid of any concrete semantic content.

    Guideline 3:

    Core values should be stated as ambiguously as possible. Employees will tend to infuse ambiguous statements with their own meanings, thereby generating widespread assent among people who hold significantly different understandings of the statements.

    Guideline 4:

    Your values should be inconsistent with your strategic market focus. In their book The Discipline of Market Leaders, Treacy and Wiersema (1995) argue that companies must choose among one of three basic value disciplines, which are the primary values companies bring to customers: innovation, customer intimacy, or operational efficiency. For example, if your value discipline is operational efficiency and you have a budget that requires that you be lean and efficient, include a core value statement that references customer intimacy—something like “We go the extra mile for our customers.” If you do, your employees will always be conflicted between the company’s stated value (customer intimacy) and its clear, omnipresent, unarticulated value (operational efficiency).

    Guideline 5:

    One or more values should be anchored to objectives over which the employee has little control. The most obvious example of this principle is to create a core value that targets customer satisfaction.

    Guideline 6:

    At least one of your core values should be employee-oriented. Your employees will naturally buy into the value and hope that it is true, but with every conflict they encounter that resolves against them they will grow increasingly cynical.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.