Peter Thiel, co-creator of Paypal, famously once said to the founders of Airbnb before investing in them: “Don’t fuck up the culture”.

Three years into our journey we thought we’d find out if we had ‘fucked up’ our values. 

Like many startups, we at Runway East took Peter Thiel’s famous quote seriously. In early 2016 we worked with culture expert Brett Putter, founder of CultureGene, to define our values. 

We developed our company CODE to live by:

Customer first
Open
Damn (we give a) 
Entrepreneurial

We made a nice deck showing all of them. It felt good. But now, two years, three building launches and 1000 startup members to support later, those exercises seem a long way away. 

Had we just made a nice looking company culture deck?

(Brett and our CEO, Natasha Guerra, talk culture and values)

We decided to call Brett, who helped us define our values in the first place and has been an invaluable advisor to us since day one. An expert in company culture with 16 year’s executive search experience helping high-growth companies scale their teams as Managing Partner of an executive search boutique, Brett has interviewed over 5,000 senior executives during his career. Over the past 18 months he has interviewed the who’s who of London’s most promising startups, including Thread, CharlieHR, Hubble and Busuu, to understand how they utilise their culture as they build and scale their companies – the perfect person to tell us if we were succeeding or failing at living our values. 

(Right) The Runway East company values document – we give it to each new hire

So….have we lived our values? The outcome of our CultureGene review

 

We caught up with Brett a couple of weeks ago in our Runway East Shoreditch coworking space to see how we’ve lived up to the values he’d helped us define. Brett has 5 questions he asks to test if startups are living up to their values. Here are the results of our test.

Question 1: How have your values been applied in a crisis situation?

 

Why this matters:

A crisis is when your company’s true self shines through. If your values aren’t embedded in your response to crisis you need to work harder to ensure they are. In Brett’s own words:

How you react to crisis reveals important underlying values, motivations and behaviours to the team.

How we think we do on this:

Our biggest crisis: when our roof literally fell in (see Business Insider 2016), and we stayed up all night finding temporary space for all our members, and updating them on the situation as it developed. That week we even delivered cake to them on Wednesday, just as we always did (and still do) – ticking multiple boxes of customer first, give a damn, openness and entrepreneurial.

We’ve also learnt from our mistakes during crisis. When there was a terrorist attack in London we sent an email to our members that included some of the misinformation that was rampant on twitter at the time. Looking back on it, we were disappointed – helping spread panic in a stressful time is not very customer first. We revised our communications guidelines and now use the example in our onboarding for community managers. Brett’s response?

“The core values are embedded deeper into the company if the leadership demonstrate that they live the values during a crisis situation. Because a crisis is more often than not an extremely emotional experience, the team (and customers) are more likely to remember how the leaders behaved and delivered on the values.”

 

(Below) Values in a crisis situation: when ‘Beam-gate’ happened when we were barely 12 months old, we were open about what we knew (and what we didn’t). Our members stood by us and we went on to open a new space, twice the size, in the same year. 

Question 2: Hiring is the critical first step after defining your values, have you embedded them into your recruitment processes?

 

Why this matters:

If you want your team to live your values as your company grows, you need to recruit people who share them. In Brett’s own words:

“Have you embedded your values into the the hiring process, are they clearly articulated on your website? In your job ads? In your job description? Have you built them into your interview questions? Have you designed your values into your onboarding

process, in your probation period and performance evaluations?”

How we think did on this:

We were pleased to see we do quite well at this – our values are available on our website and if you go to one of our job adverts, you’ll notice that our values are right there, in the job advert, front and centre. Our final interview is always a culture based interview with questions designed to test how people’s behaviour in situations in their past career reflect the values we believe to be important. We are working on the onboarding and performance evaluations pieces.

Question 3: Do you put your money where your mouth is?

 

Why this matters:

If you say your values are core to your company and you don’t invest money in them – you’re not being true to them. In Brett’s own words:

How the company’s budgets are created reveals a leader’s beliefs. If, for example as CEO, you say customer service is really important to you, but you don’t invest in it or measure it, then it’s not important to you. If you don’t invest in customer service but you know you need it, you don’t value it. No matter how many times you say it

How we think we do on this:  

We have struggled when it comes to investing in encouraging and developing ‘entrepreneurialism’ in our staff. We argued to Brett this is because we’re too busy focussing on our other core values, like being ‘customer first’ – and his response?

“If you aren’t living one of your values it means that you are either not working hard enough on this aspect of the values or this isn’t one of your core values.”

Fair enough, this is something we are going to explore further in the coming months!

 

Question 4: What do you measure and control to ensure cultural consistency?

 

Why this matters:

Evaluate and re-evaluate where you are with your values constantly, otherwise you’ll lose focus and your culture will spiral. In Brett’s own words:

What I advise my clients to do is to test whether the company is living their values, and to do it on an ongoing basis, Is the team really living and breathing the values and if not, why not? It’s as simple as running a team survey every month or quarter

How we think we do on this:

We’re going to be straight up and admit we don’t do this but we will from now on. In fact, we created this to send (anonymously) to our team every quarter. So we will do better. Sorry, Brett. Brett’s response?

“A company’s culture is never static and the values can change over time, so it’s important to regularly measure how the values are being lived.”

QUESTION 5: Have you rewarded people for living your company values?

 

Why this matters:

Reward behaviour that reflects your values and you’ll see the results of it. In Brett’s own words:

There are a number of ways to change the values and behaviour of a company, you can change the reward system, what you invest in, what you measure or what you decide to control. If you change the reward structure to reward profitability your people will naturally start to adapt to the new reward structure and aim for profitability in the business. You must ensure though that you think about the impact of the change you are making. Rewarding profitability could impact customer service in a negative way because your people may start to take short cuts to reach profitability.

How we think we do on this:

In our favour – openness is encouraged and in our office the idea of your input being ‘above your pay grade’ doesn’t happen. We have weekly ‘snaps’  during our Friday team wind down, when we each single out team members for positive things they’ve done. Not in our favour – we don’t tie our snaps explicitly to our values. Brett’s recommendation?

“It would be advantageous to somehow tie the snaps part of the team weekly wind down directly to living the values, as this will reinforce the importance of the values to the team and any new people joining the team.”

The final step: Looking back and seeing results

 

The end product should be that your company culture and values are present in every action undertaken by your company. In Brett’s own words:

Once I’ve finished working with a client you notice their values are prevalent across the organisation, in each function, process, policy and procedure..

How we think we do on this: We’re proud of how far we’ve progressed – but we are always looking for ways to improve ourselves. Many thanks to Brett for taking the time to talk to us – you can find out more about his work at www.culturegene.ai.

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