Scale Your Purpose, Culture, and Ethics
Congratulations! You secured the funding to take your company to the next level.
You now get to hire a team to expand product development, operations, marketing, and sales.
As your company gallops past the capacity of a very large conference table or zoom call, it is critical to scaffold your principles in actionable language, habits, and processes; to sustain your “why” by describing “how” and specifying “who’s going to do what and when.” Writing a values statement is a good start but insufficient alone. Scaling the company culture along with customer engagement and revenue growth is critical for long-term viability.
“This really helped us turn a vague mindset of being ethical into concrete values and actions with an understanding of how they add stakeholder value.” Brad Factor, CEO, Ekto VR.
The focus on culture has magnified in recent years, as has the awareness of the deficiencies of the existing tech ecosystem. Moving fast and breaking things is no longer viewed as acceptable conduct. A movement has arisen in support of a more responsible environment. People are focused on a range of issues making the next era of technology innovation more equitable and just. Some call them the GEDI principles: Gender Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.
In a bold move demonstrating how company culture is memorialized in the governance structure, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard announced a new ownership model for the company. He put his money where his heart and mouth are by transferring ownership to the Patagonia Purpose Trust and Holdfast Collective. Both were established with the explicit intent to ensure profits from the company are used for the benefit of the planet. Principles, purpose, and profits are put into practice.
Many other people are focusing on specific ideas, including
introducing ethics into and across every aspect of the
operations, addressing algorithm and data bias, fixing toxic work
environments, changing compensation and labor practices, etc.
The Tech We Want, a project recently announced by the
Network is one such example. Other initiatives focus on
issues like AI and ethics, measuring ESG, new approaches to governance
and regulation, and public
policy. Entrepreneurs launching startups today must factor in
broader operational metrics beyond revenue and active users. In
this next phase of our tech-enabled world, culture will drive and
impact success as much, if not more, than traditional
While bold visionary statements and narratives can be powerful and inspiring, a sustainable and inclusive reality is made and held by small, simple day-to-day actions. Clearly communicating your purpose will go a long way in attracting talent and onboarding new employees. You will also need to sustain their sense of excitement, commitment, and belonging every day thereafter. An abstract understanding of company values is the start; empowering each person in the organization to make decisions when performing their responsibilities sets your company apart from all the others.
“This work brought actionable ethics to the core of our company’s values, providing substance, not just words, to answer the “how” and “why” our company does things. This has enabled us to have a North Star to focus on when making important decisions.” Emily Siegel, CEO, Trek Gum.
As a senior leader, the choice indeed is yours. As the old commercial used to say, “you can pay me now or pay me later.” Intentionally cultivating and nurturing your culture will help mitigate downstream distractions. Unless, of course, you prefer prioritizing your time and resources on keeping up with massive talent turnover, putting out fires brought on by a toxic culture, developing strategies to make up for lost productivity, and crafting messaging to repair reputational damage. Uber’s struggles with its culture played out in the press, costing them significantly in brand reputation, increased turnover, and legal expenses. It is a choice. Paying attention to culture is your leadership option.
Your product is a reflection of the company culture in which it was developed. Ongoing development of your culture and ethics is a core operational process. It directly shapes and fortifies not only your product but also your customers’ loyalty, the quality of the decisions you make, your capacity to innovate, your relationship with your employees, their relationships with their families, and the well-being of the community you are part of.
To free up your time to focus on what matters most, you will need to proactively focus your time and attention on what matters the most. As a leader, it’s incumbent on you to make your purpose clear and the ways it shows up in your day-to-day operations crystal clear.
Concrete and well-communicated company values are powerful, practical decision-making tools. Johnson and Johnson, once hailed a hero for applying their principles during the Tylenol scandal, have more recently been vilified for not upholding these same values in response to the harmful effects of their baby powder. Principles help keep what really matters in mind, within reach, when needed. Whether you’re building products and need to validate your bias prevention processes, hiring people, managing through a crisis, or creating customer agreements, your values must continually be applied and propagated into day-to-day decision-making.
“Being able to clearly articulate our values has been extremely helpful in the hiring process.” Sarah Palya, CEO, Gus Gear.
To get started, pick a value you hold strongly and take credit for what you are already doing. Talk with your team(s) about how it shows up in your daily work. Notice it. Discuss it and listen to your team’s feedback.
While you talk to your team, consider what other parts of your operation this value can inform and improve. Think in concrete terms, then put it into practice. Write down what should be done, who should do it, and when it should be done. Be specific. Consider what aspects of your company operations are not in line with that value. How can they be revised to better reflect who you are as a company? Think in concrete terms, then put that plan into practice.
Pick another value and repeat. How is your company already upholding it or not? How can it inform more practices or processes? What aspects of what you do are not in line with this value? Talk about it in concrete terms, then put your conclusions into action. Again, identify the what, who and when to be as specific as possible. Make a habit of talking about values in conversations with stakeholders (customers, employees, investors, vendors, and others). Reflect on those conversations. What did you learn? How might it be woven into how you conduct your business?
Integrating purpose into your work is a journey, not a destination. Keep at it.
What opportunities exist across your operations to invoke values and ethics in decision-making? In what workflows, business processes, and data collection activities?
There are various frameworks and resources available to help guide your journey. Keep in mind people are prone to be more supportive of ideas and processes they helped create. Adopting a framework for eliciting your values and principles and those of key leaders in the organization is the first step.
Making Ethics Practical is one such framework for navigating the process of defining values and making sense of them on a practical level. COR Methodology is an emerging tool for helping to guide the application of your values in an operational context. The COR Canvas can be useful in propagating your principles to all operating areas of the organization. Taking Ethics Seriously offers a path for applying ethics principles as practical decision-making tools. The author, John Hooker, takes questions and will work through your real-world dilemmas on his blog. There are more frameworks out there to fit a variety of needs, contexts, and styles.
The rapid scalability of tech turned out to be a magnifying mirror for the society in which it was created. While not necessarily creating bias, malice, division, and other systemic ethical ailments, tech amplifies, proliferates, and brings unprecedented efficiency to both our virtues and our vices. We are awakening to the reality that engineering skills alone are not enough to develop beneficial technology. Turns out that checking boxes through glossy marketing statements, well-intentioned company-wide training, the presence of an unempowered ethics officer, or a beautiful yet fluffy annual retreat are just not sufficient.
A clear purpose allows us to surpass our competitors and legacy incumbents through articulating a clear vision of what we offer to our customers, patients, and colleagues.” Collin Wolf, Chief Science Officer, Cassian Solutions.
Herein lies the challenge for founders and startup leadership. The processes and ways you communicate are ever-evolving. What works when you’re five people is different than when you’re twenty-five and has to continue evolving as you scale. The key is to develop repeatable processes that work in various functional areas of the organization and to intentionally modify them as you grow. Defining your values and communicating them is not a phase or a milestone to complete. It’s an ongoing aspect of your operations – no different than finance, product development, sales, or marketing.
Your people are your organization. They require and deserve the attention necessary to remain focused, motivated, and committed to the long-term purpose and benefit of the organization.
To learn more about how to scale with purpose, Ethics MVP and COR Methodology will host a three-part master class to walk you through a practical, repeatable process for building and supporting a resilient company culture.