The key ingredient in creating a winning growth-stage company culture

Culture is a loaded word. It can mean a lot of different things to different people. In the start-up ecosystem, talent tends to think that culture represents the stereotypical stuff: ping pong tables, open work environments, cafeterias, and unlimited free coffee. While the physical perks that come with a unique office environment can definitely contribute to a good corporate culture and are relatively easy to achieve, they’re actually not what defines a great culture.

Culture is less tangible. It’s the feeling employees and clients get when they walk into your office or interact with your staff. Culture comes from behaviors that are embodied by every person on the team. And when you’re an early or growth-stage startup, establishing and maintaining a great culture is an absolutely critical ingredient that can make or break your business.

So, how can founders and CEOs create a culture that people want to join, work at, and stay at? We recently spoke with Ashira Gobrin, Senior Vice President of People and Culture at Wave HQ, a financial software provider for small businesses and one of North America’s most successful VC-backed SaaS companies that was recently acquired by H&R Block.

According to Gobrin, the short answer on how to create a great culture is to define the key value drivers that will move your business from where it is today to where you want to be. Then it’s a matter of establishing behaviors you really believe in and ones that you can hold everyone on your team accountable to.

Based on our conversation, we’ve outlined five pieces of advice for how to develop and maintain a company’s value drivers to create a rock-solid company culture.

1. Clearly establish and articulate your company’s value drivers.

Establishing your company’s values creates your culture. The million-dollar question is how do you create those values, and what should they be? Values can’t be a set of empty words that you hang on the wall and don’t do anything about. They should be behaviors that you really believe in and hold everyone on your team accountable to. Your company’s value drivers will ultimately define how you communicate to customers, how you reward your staff and discuss employee performance, and how your team makes decisions.

It can be helpful to think of your company’s purpose as a compass. Wherever you go, you should always follow your purpose. But your value system should act as your company’s GPS. You can’t always go the straightest path to north, so your value system helps you navigate where it is that you need to go to reach your final destination, your North Star.

The earlier on that founders can establish this in their company, the better. That’s so that the values don’t get lost as you scale, which for most successful startups is likely to happen quickly.

2. Your company’s value drivers should be different than your own.

As a founder, you need to be mindful of the values you create for your company. Importantly, those values shouldn’t just mirror your own personal ones. While there might be some elements of your company values that align with yours, they shouldn’t be one in the same. This is where diversity comes into play.

As your company grows, it starts to take on a life of its own. Therefore, it’s important to bring in other leaders who can bring different values to the table to make your team strong. That’s why your first 100 hires are so critical for the success of the business. Use the opportunity to bring in different types of people who complement your own skillset and hire people who are better than you at whatever craft they master.

Getting the mindset, mentality, and values of the culture right from the company’s inception really does influence what your company becomes as it scales. A big part of building a successful company is hiring a diverse leadership team that can hold the founder accountable and help you get your values right.

3. Make sure everyone is clear on your value drivers.

Ensuring your team is always clear on the value drivers you establish is key. Regularly checking in on your value drivers is the perfect way to ground your team and reinforce — or revisit — your values. If people on the team say that they think the current values are preventing them from doing and growing, then they should change. For example, in Wave’s early days, a key value driver was to be Bold and Ambitious. However, when the team sat back at the table later down the line, they realized that they focused so heavily on that value driver that they forgot to focus on the customer. At that point, Wave adapted this particular value to Empathy for the Customer.

4. Revisit your value drivers regularly as the company scales.

The thing about value drivers is that they need to be regularly revisited, as you can see in the example above. They typically need to change and evolve just as your company and team grows and evolves.

While some value drivers may be embedded into the DNA of the company, as a founder or CEO, it’s important that you recognize when it’s time for a change. Revisiting your values is key in any transformational stage, especially if your company has reached a plateau and is getting ready for that next chapter of growth. The truth is that startup life happens really fast. Reinforcing or adapting the values at any transformational stage lays the foundation for the next part of the journey.

5. Make sure to really commit to your value drivers.

Having worked for a number of years in HR and culture, Ashira has seen her fair share of failed cultures, which she’s later gone on to mend. She says that the most common issue is that values are established and put into place, but aren’t endorsed by the leadership team and the team at large.

So, while creating values is a big part of the culture equation, so too is making a commitment to them. This can go a long way toward creating trust and loyalty with your employees because it creates consistency in your approach to how you do things and how you expect your staff to.

The ultimate goal with creating a great culture is to help your company attract the right kind of talent, keep everyone on your team engaged, and ensure your staff is empowered to help meet your goals. When you don’t maintain a commitment to your values, it creates misalignment among your employees and problems can start to arise. For example, your team-based culture can quickly become siloed, staff can become frustrated and unmotivated, and most importantly, your team can start responding to questions differently, thus affecting customer experience and ultimately business success.

Pulling inspiration from Wave

Communicating your value drivers to every person on your team and checking in with those value drivers at every stage of growth (or even just on a regular basis) can go a long way.

Wave currently uses eight value drivers which are ranked in order of priority. Each one of their values enables the next value. If you can accomplish the first value, then you can do the next thing. It helps the team understand what they’re there to do and achieve, what they stand for, and puts a limit on how many things they can do at the same time. And the reason this system works so effectively for Wave, Ashira says, is that if conflict between values, then they simply turn to the value system to help deal with the conflict.

Whatever values you choose for your business, by following the advice outlined above, you’ll be in a much better position to lead your business forward and drive greater success.

Ashira Gobrin is the SVP, People and Culture at Wave. Wave was recently acquired by H&R Block for $537 million, making it the seventh largest exit in Canada since 2001.