I talk often about the importance of values in an organization. I believe they are one of your most powerful marketing and recruiting tools, when used correctly.
But in order for this to be true, your team needs to fully embody the value of the organization. This is because the true evidence of values lie in the actions your teams take.
Ultimately, organizations don’t have values, people do. And if your people don’t truly share your values it’s going to be difficult for them to operate in ways that are consistent with them, especially when under stress. When things get hard, who you naturally are tends to come out.
You can train for skill. It’s much harder to train for values. Solid SOPs and robust training can sometimes mask a values misalignment. But it’s better to just have folks who are already aligned.
Here’s how to do it.
Identify your values
This is obvious. But if you don’t have values clearly articulated you won’t be able to assess candidates on them.
I’ve written about how to do this in detail elsewhere. But a short version:
- Values should be downstream of the owner or founder. If you’re a larger organization they need to be downstream of the executive team. If the senior leadership doesn’t consistently model the values themselves, they won’t stick.
- Use the “would you rather” question. Pick two of the values from your list of finalists. Ask yourself which one you’d choose if you could only have one. Repeat, pitting each value against the others. Tally the winners up. You don’t have to use the results dogmatically, but it can be helpful for objectivity, especially when there are multiple stakeholders.
- Ask the alignment question. Before committing, ask yourself how consistently you truly live these values out. Often people think of values they should have, not values they actually have. As a result they fail to consistently model them. Make sure you feel confident you can actually live out the values with regularity before finalizing. One way to do this is to ask yourself (or your team) to rate each yourselves on 3 dimensions:
- Importance: how important is this value to me? Scale of 1 to 10.
- Effort: how much effort do I actually put into this value? Scale of 1 to 10.
- Consistency: How well do you embody this value? Importance - Effort
- Use sledgehammers. Try to use the most forceful, compelling language you can. An old mentor used to tell me “words are sledgehammers.” They have the power to break up monotony, stir the heart, and compel action. Avoid vanilla.
- Create “we believe” statements. Often it can be hard to understand what you specifically mean by a value. It can be hard to encapsulate it in a single word. So use “we believe” statements to provide some meat to them.
- Clearly state the implications. Values manifest themselves in action. So ask yourself, “what do we do as an organization because we have this value? What do we not do because we have this value?” Be specific.
As an example, a client who provides fractional CMO services wrote down meaning, momentum and process as their core values. For meaning, they wrote down the following:
<aside> 💡 Meaning
We believe in the dignity of work. We believe work is the ideal lab for forging character. We believe the next project, the next client, the next launch is an opportunity to do the work of our lives. How we model meaning:
- We show up excited to make an impact every day.
- We are insatiably curious. We embrace each project with beginner’s mind.
- We deliberately work to cultivate flow states, where time disappears and we are fully engaged.
- We look for ways to reframe even the most mundane task as the wedge of something incredible.
- We take time each day to feel gratitude. To remind ourselves of how far we’ve come, of how fortunate we are to be alive at this moment in time, getting to do work we love.
- We identify weaknesses in our character and seek out opportunities in our work to improve. We work on our business as we are working on ourselves.
- We bring all of ourselves to our work, and then shut it off. We spend time with our family or friends, resting in the knowledge that we earned our rest. </aside>
Design a Values-Based Interview Process
The traditional interview process can often lead to values misalignment. This is because the focus of the interviews are on the skills or competencies the candidate has, not the values they do or do not possess.
Instead, conduct a values-based interview process. Have your first round of interviews be entirely to assess values alignment. You can assess for skill and competency fit in later rounds, but get value fit right first.
The best way to do this is through the creation of behavior-based interview questions. These are questions that ask them to think of previous situations where they demonstrated a value.
The questions you ask will depend on the values you’ve articulated. For example, our client that had written down meaning as one of their values settled on the following questions for to assess for that value:
<aside> 💡 Behavior-based questions to assess for “meaning” alignment:
- Describe a time when you approached a project with a beginner's mindset. What was the situation, and what actions did you take?
- Share an example of how you have identified a weakness in your character and used your work to improve that aspect of yourself.
- What’s the last book you read or course you took that wasn’t assigned to you by your boss? Why did you pick that course? What did you learn from it?
- Tell us about a time when you took a seemingly mundane work task and transformed it into something incredible. What was the situation, and how did you approach the task differently?
- How do you practice gratitude in your professional life? Can you share an example of how expressing gratitude has had a positive impact on your work? </aside>
Note that we aren’t simply asking them what they think about a particular value. Candidates are smart enough to know not to disagree with a value outright. They also aren’t used to being inside of organizations that truly embody the values, so tend to perform for you, whether they’re really aligned or not.
If you insist on being more forward with your line of questioning, you can use the same values pair exercise you used when articulating your own values. Give them two equally “good” values, only one of which is yours. Ask them to choose among them. But understand this is a blunt instrument, and could lead to some false negatives. They might have your values, but just have the other values more.
Evaluate Candidates Relative to Each Other
As you conduct the values interviews, rate each candidate on a scale of 1-10 for each value. If you want to get more granular with it, you can attempt to use the same Importance / Effort framework. But that can be hard to accurately gauge in the relatively limited time you have with each candidate. A simple 1-10 scale is usually sufficient.
In order for this to work, you want to try to normalize the data as much as you can. You can do this by asking the candidates the exact same questions, and by having the same people interview all candidates.
Modeling Values When Making the Offer
Once you’ve had candidates pass the value interview and survive subsequent skill-based interviews, it’s time to make an offer. The way you make the offer can be an opportunity to reinforce your values and the first real taste of how the organization operates.
Some suggestions on how to do this well:
- Look for ways to embody your values in the language you include in the offer. In the fractional CMO example, they might include something like, “We look forward to doing the work of our lives together.” Remember that your brand is the sum of all data points someone has with your company. This is true for your team as much as your customers. Think of your offer letter as copywriting.
- Schedule a time for the candidate to talk with someone on your team who you think clearly embodies the values of the organization. Have the premise of the conversation be about what it’s really like to work there. Make sure that team member is briefed, but give them the freedom to answer candidly and honestly.
- Similarly, before making the offer, explain in detail what you think it’s really like to work there. Give them the warts. Show them you’re aware of the ways the organization needs to continue to improve.
- Align your benefits and perks with your values. For example:
- Growth: include stipends for professional development.
- Balance: flexible work hours, remote work, or generous vacation time.
- Innovation: 20% time, skunkworks projects, soliciting/implementing/rewarding innovative ideas on how to do things better.
At a minimum, be on the lookout for ways your benefits might conflict with your stated values.
Embed your values in your hiring.
Hiring for values alignment is a critical step in building a team that embodies the values of your organization. By identifying your values, designing a values-based interview process, evaluating candidates relative to each other, and modeling values when making the offer, you can build a team that is aligned with the core principles of your organization.