Let me state the obvious: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. I have read all about it in business books, with my favorite one being Delivering Happiness (describing the Zappos case).

It is all about the set of values that drive our work lives every day. Values that should express the way in which everyone in a team is expected to behave, as well as explain which factors need to be considered before (and after) every decision.

Simple and obvious, but also the most difficult task that I have undertaken so far in my career as a CEO.

Building and growing a values-driven organization is extremely difficult.

I had no idea exactly how difficult. After seeking advice in books, I thought that we only had to choose the values that we felt were representative of our culture — either on our own or with the help of an external consultant. Write them down and brainstorm or reflect on them as a team. Post them on our website, our walls, on t-shirts and memorabilia. Find some nice quotes and photos that go along with them. Talk about them on various occasions, like company events and CEO talks. All boxes ticked, job done.

Ha. I wish it were that simple.

What is keeping different people connected?

What is keeping different people connected? (Photo by Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash)

Nobody told me that these steps can be nothing but superficial crap. Nobody warned me about spending days doing things by the book and then watching the whole team spirit collapse. Nobody explained that culture is not about choosing words and designing the posters, but something much more essential. I learnt something important, the hard way.

Culture is about actual behaviors and decisions. In every moment, from each individual, but also from the team as a whole.

Selecting a team’s values is such an important step. Values define the way we agree to behave. They correspond to criteria that we use when making decisions. They are the lens through which we see all our successes and failures. They are what help us understand what has gone well or terribly wrong on every occasion.

So, what would my advice be to a fellow CEO that wishes to build a values-driven organization?

  • Help everyone understand and express the values that keep the team together.
  • Make sure everyone is reminded that these are the rules that drive all decisions and behaviors.
  • Hold everyone accountable in doing so.
  • Most importantly, serve as an example by living these values, no matter how difficult this may be.

Tough, but worth it (Photo by Mike Benson on Unsplash)

It can be extremely tough. You might need to commit to a decision that complies to the values but finds you in complete disagreement. You might need to stop working with an important client who is not treating your people or your partnership as your values dictate. You might need to fire a friend that does not behave according to your values. You might need to change your behavior because something you do or say violates a value. Even if you are the CEO of the company.

In my humble opinion, this is the cornerstone of a values-driven organization. A leader that decides that he or she is going to commit, comply and serve as an example for everyone. No matter what.