Embedding Core Values in Company Culture

I began working at a grocery store chain called Wegmans at age 15. Prior to this, I worked in the church rectory, babysat the kids of family friends, and did some odd jobs here and there. This was my first "real" job. Wegmans was new to the area and it felt like everyone was talking about it. I didn't understand then but after getting inside a store - the lights, the ambiance, the level of service - it all made sense. At the time, I was just happy to be a part of all the hype. My best friend, Kyle, was starting a job there too. That added to the excitement level.

I distinctly remember getting dropped off at orientation. It was a hot summer day and we were set up at a pop-up career center in a local strip mall. At the orientation, they walked us through the company's history, what they believed in, and Wegmans’ Core Values. Following orientation, I would be traveling to other stores for on-site training since our store was still under construction. I was engaged and actually pretty excited. For a 15 year old starting a job as a cashier, they made me feel important.

A couple of years in, I became a Front-End Coordinator managing the cashiers working during my shift. I ended up working at Wegmans consistently for about five years then solely during holidays when home from college. Fun fact: I never quit. I graduated from college, started my career, and didn't schedule any more shifts. I often wonder if I could still clock in and start working.

Wegmans was my first exposure to Core Values. At the time, they seemed like corporate jargon but looking back, they were key to shaping my experience there. They helped me understand the expectations of me as an employee but equally as important, they gave me a way to connect with other employees regardless of what store they worked in, their age, their role, etc. Even today, I find myself eager to open a dialogue with the cashier when shopping at a Wegmans store.

Why Core Values?

Flash forward to a few years ago, I was chatting with a friend who had started a small web design and development studio. One of the team members wasn't pulling their weight in the eyes of the others and things were getting tough. Emotions were running high and what used to be fun was now awkward and tense. He wondered: "how did we end up here?"

Of course, there wasn't one simple answer. Life is a string of events and choices that lead us to where we are today. However, one thing we agreed on is that the team never truly developed a shared understanding of what they valued. They were all friends so, informally, it felt good. In time, that changed. It became hard to give feedback that didn't feel personal. There was nothing to point at during disagreements and if the majority of the team shared the same perspective, it felt like they were ganging up on the one or two other team members.

I can't claim that Core Values would have prevented all of this but it would have been a great place to start. Without Core Values in place, it's difficult to measure and align as a unit. Whether it's a team of two or 200, Core Values help bridge the gap between unique perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences. They give us a place to point and objectively make challenging decisions.

Barrel's Core Values have become integral to our culture. It's honestly hard to imagine our team without them. We currently have four Core Values. Each includes supplementary details to provide more insight. They are as follows:

Continuous Growth & Learning

  • Self-initiated efforts to strengthen knowledge and skill sets required for the job.
  • Proactively reading new materials and experimenting with new methods/tools to be more effective at the role.
  • Awareness of limitations/weaknesses and open to constructive feedback; puts in a sincere effort to grow and improve in these areas.
  • Always seeking and identifying smarter, better, and more efficient ways to do the work.

Focus & Discipline

  • Organized, motivated, and efficient in executing required tasks and contributing to the team.
  • Able to meet deadlines and exceed client expectations.
  • Consistently deliver high quality work and going above and beyond; a zero tolerance for the bare minimum.
  • Proactive in self-managing priorities and getting the work done effectively in a timely manner.

Positive Attitude

  • Willing to help team members and freely volunteer time and effort to make them better.
  • Taking responsibility for your actions vs. blaming others. Pointing the finger inward.
  • Taking the time to share knowledge and contribute ideas and skills to help others get better at their jobs.
  • Able to respect, empathize with, and see from the perspective of team members on points of disagreement.
  • Taking pride in the success of the overall team and the achievement of other team members.

Team-First Mentality

  • Consistent in the use of positive language and encouragement of team members.
  • Open-minded and optimistic about new challenges and eager to confront and solve unanticipated difficulties.
  • Able to stay calm, poised, and respectful to others through all kinds of stressful and high-pressure situations.

It's one thing to have defined Core Values but what good are they if no one knows them?

Learning Core Values

I often think about the process of learning a new language whenever we're in the midst of establishing new deliverables, processes, or ideas among the team.

You can't expect to teach anyone a new language by standing up in a room full of people and telling them what all the words are. It will take time, repetition, and practice. First, it's important to explain how the language is structured, what it looks like, and how it sounds. You can then get into learning words, structuring sentences, and eventually, everyone is communicating in the desired language. They're fluent.

When it comes to Core Values, we want the team to be fluent. Fluency is about more than being able to recite each value. It's living these values every day. Similar to learning the native language of a country while living there, when our teams are fluent in our Core Values, it becomes easier for newcomers to join in, become fluent, and more integrated into the team. Once we achieve fluency, these values become synonymous with the company's culture.

To introduce our initial Core Values to the team, we did what any eager, excited leadership team would do; we made posters. It was fun and it looked nice hanging in the office but did it make any real impact? It was nothing more than nice decoration. We eventually took a step back and landed on new Core Values and a new outlook.

Integrating Core Values

Since redefining our Core Values about 5 years ago, it has been a journey with countless brainstorms and experiments. Even today as a leadership team, we continue to challenge and re-frame “old” ideas to discover new ones. Here’s a look at the ways we have woven our Core Values into the fabric of our culture at Barrel.

Hiring

While our hiring process is always evolving, one thing that's remained constant is a focus on our Core Values. Prior to rolling them out, we used to simply look for "cultural fit" alongside the other skills and experience needed for the job. The issue was that "cultural fit" can mean different things to different people. That can become challenging when a few different team members are trying to decide on a candidate to hire.

We currently use a modified version of the Topgrading Interview Framework explored in the book Who. Through a series of questions that start with the candidate's High School experiences, this framework helps the interviewer build a roadmap to where the candidate is today. By discussing past events, motivations, successes, and failures that led to their current skill set, we're able to illuminate their values and see how they align with our's. This alignment often happens through an informal discussion between those conducting the interview but we've also tried other ways of making it more objective through a point system or matrix.

Performance Management

For us, performance management is not about a formal conversation that happens once a year. It's about open, honest, and consistent feedback. While we have built a system for semi-annual reviews, our goal is that those reviews are not a surprise. Instead, we see them as an opportunity to reflect, gather feedback from peers, and define development areas of focus for each employee. For this to happen, we model and encourage timely, informal feedback among the team. Why wait when it's still fresh?

Semi-Annual Reviews

Our Semi-Annual Review process is built almost entirely on our Core Values. Why have them if there's no expectation to be accountable for them? For every employee, we gather inputs from a few different sources:

  • Self-Evaluation
  • Peer Review (from 4-5 peers who they've worked with over the past 6 months)
  • Manager Review

The key component to every review is providing input on not only each Core Value but the bullet points that follow. For every detail, the employee, their peers, and their manager rates their performance and provides examples of how they've demonstrated it.

We use the following rating system:

  1. Below Expectations
  2. Meets Expectations
  3. Exceed Expectations
  4. Greatly Exceeds Expectations
  5. Truly Outstanding

Like our interview process, this framework enables the team to provide helpful feedback and uncovers great insights. All of this feedback is distilled by the manager and shared with the employee. At the end of every review, we also provide a score for each Core Value. This has become a useful, higher-level way to track progress as an employee moves through the company and their role evolves. Every review also includes anonymous quotes from the Peer Reviews to provide an honest look into how each employee is impacting the team, company, and projects.

Late last year, I moved this entire process over to a tool called Lattice. Lattice was a much-needed upgrade from the Google Suite. It centralizes all things performance management and makes it easy to paint a picture of every employee's journey within the company. It also allows for every employee to have constant access to information regarding their performance rather than print outs and PDFs.

There's a lot that goes into these reviews! Each employee review takes a manager 3-4 hours on average to complete but the impact makes it all worthwhile. There's nothing better than employees who know how they're doing and where to focus. One day I'll likely write a post on this that goes into even more depth.

Side note: While our Annual Compensation Review Form (filled out by the employee) focuses more on personal growth, contributions to the team, and client success; we do factor in the output of Semi-Annual Reviews when considering raise amount.

Performance Improvement Plan

Letting employees go is never fun but it happens. That said, we do everything we can to make sure no one is ever blindsided and we give them a chance to turn things around. That's where the Performance Improvement Plan comes in.

The Performance Improvement Plan, or PIP, is our way of formally documenting an employee's performance issues and making it clear to them that we need to see change. Every PIP is accompanied by a date (typically 30-90 days) in which we hope to see progress. The PIP only comes into play when it becomes clear that an employee's performance is problematic and therefore, often takes place outside the Semi-Annual Review cycle.

You might know where I'm going with this... the PIP is broken up into four key sections: Continuous Growth & Learning, Focus & Discipline, Positive Attitude, and Team-First Mentality. You guessed it: Our Core Values. We do this because it helps guide the manager in preparing the PIP to look at the employee's performance and contributions to the team more holistically. Said another way, even when an employee is underperforming in one area, they may be thriving in another. For instance, maybe they're that employee who constantly lifts everyone's spirits during challenging projects. This is important.

Feedback is often not easy for people to take and it's even harder when they feel like they've contributed so much or disagree. Rather than focus solely on what's not working, we use our Core Values to acknowledge what is. This has helped break through the noise and say "Hey, you're doing a great job here but to be an A player on this team, here's what needs to change."

I'm happy to say every PIP doesn't end in a firing. It's been rewarding to see employees take it seriously and truly turn things around.

Team Appreciation

Now for the fun stuff. Appreciation is just another form of feedback and is crucial for every company's culture. The key is that it doesn't feel forced and in result, disingenuous. We've designed a few key checkpoints to give our team the space to come up for air and say "Hey, you're doing great!"

Bonusly

Bonusly is a platform that's gamified team appreciation. It integrates with Slack and allows team members to give each other shout outs for anything from leading a successful presentation to learning a new skill to helping out another team member. With a team fluent in our Core Values, shout outs are often framed around demonstrations of those values in action.

Every shout out is also accompanied by a hashtag (one of our Core Values) and a number of points. Points? Yes, points. Every month, employees are given 200 points to use for shout outs. These points can later be redeemed for gift cards or donated to a good cause. We've had a lot of fun using Bonusly data to see team appreciation in new ways like those who give the most shout outs and what hashtags are most popular (people often supplement our Core Values with their own creations).

Tuesday Meetup

Since moving to a fully remote team, we realized that days and even weeks can go by and two people may never cross Zoom paths. We wanted to change that so we created the Tuesday Meetup. The agenda is simple. We jump on Zoom and share a randomized list of the team's names. One at a time, each person says two things: a shout out from the previous week and one thing they're looking forward to. It can be work-related or personal. While the Core Values are not part of the agenda, it's another opportunity for them to be present and they are.

Tuesday Meetup has not only been a great way to connect remotely as a team and learn more about each other but it's given everyone more focused to reflect and look forward. That goes a long way.

Exemplar of the Month

Every month, leadership prepares a presentation for the team that covers birthdays, upcoming holidays, "barrelversaries", recent launches, new business updates, and various other timely announcements. In the past, we also included numerous shout outs for each Core Value. Once we introduced Bonusly and Tuesday Meetup; it started to feel redundant. We didn't want to lose the opportunity to revisit our Core Values on a monthly basis so rather than eliminating it altogether, we revisited it.

The "Shout Outs" section has now evolved into what we call "Exemplar of the Month." Rather than focusing on several shout out every month, we focus on one. Employees are nominated by our Team Leads and we collectively decide who should be highlighted. Each nomination includes:

  • The name of the nominee, of course
  • Who nominated them
  • The Core Value they demonstrated
  • Relevant skill
  • Relevant project
  • Why the nominator believes this person should be recognized

In all honesty, last month was the "Exemplar of the Month" debut! So far the reception has been great and we're excited to see how this evolves in the coming months.

Keeping Core Values Intact

When I look back on why Wegmans’ Core Values initially felt like corporate jargon, it was because at the time, they were. I had to experience them firsthand to truly understand them. I’m sure that’s true of anywhere, even Barrel. I don’t expect a recent hire to grab ahold of our Core Values during onboarding and they don’t have to. It’s what comes after onboarding that makes real impact. In essence, Core Values are nothing but words on a screen without a plan to integrate them.

In the book The Road Less Stupid, author Keith J. Cunningham states:

Culture is not values or mission statements; those are ideals not disciplines. Culture is how we treat each other, how we talk to each other, whether or not we trust each other, and how we handle conflict. Culture is about accountability, measuring, a bias for urgency, a focus on solutions, calling it tight—saying what needs to be said—being kind and generous, acknowledging one another, and expressing appreciation.

While I love this excerpt, I'd challenge "Culture is not values or mission statements; those are ideals not disciplines." While I understand the sentiment, I don't think this has to be true. We should instead focus on establishing Core Values that aren't foreign to the team. Let your current culture inspire who you are and where you want to go. Create an environment that supports and encourages them. If we can do that, I believe the rest of Cunningham's statement could be true of Core Values, too.

Even with Core Values deeply embedded in your company culture, the journey is never over. The only real way to ensure that they continue to be valuable is to acknowledge that.

This starts with revisiting your Core Values often to make sure they align with the direction of the company. If your team is marching on one pathway toward a vision and the Core Values are not heading in the same direction, well... you can see where the problems will arise. We revisit our Core Values annually during our planning meeting for the coming year and quarter.

Most of all, don't become complacent. Question everything. Just because an idea worked well in the past doesn't mean it’s working well today. People come and go. Clients come and go. Teams change. Culture evolves. It's important to lead that evolution and be the driver for positive change.