The Primitive Podcast: Core Values

Posted by Buffy the Bison | June 29, 2021

Defining your core values

Defining a company’s core values is the key to establishing a healthy company culture.

Your values speak into the goals, attitudes, and character you want your company to exhibit to your audience. As something of high priority to your company, it’s important to not take establishing your values lightly.

In this last episode in our four-part mini-series with Primitive’s Chief of Staff, Annie Gilbert, Kade explores how to begin the process of establishing a company’s core values, and shares some lessons from a few failures he’s learned along the way.

Connect with the folks behind the episode: Annie Gilbert and Kade Wilcox

Kade Wilcox: Hey guys, welcome to The Primitive Podcast. I'm Kade Wilcox, your host, and as always I really appreciate you tuning in. Over the last several weeks, as you've heard, we've had these kinds of mini series with Annie, our chief of staff, and myself, talking about lessons we've learned and what we've experienced. This week we wrap that series up. Thanks for tuning in to The Primitive Podcast. We really appreciate your support. Enjoy today's episode.

Kade Wilcox: Culture is like maturity in life, right? If we are good, healthy people, we're always maturing relationally, emotionally, spiritually, physically, the way we manage our money. Like healthy things are always maturing, and I think the same is true of a culture. It's always maturing and always changing. Not necessarily dramatically. In fact, I'd argue it shouldn't change dramatically if you're doing it well, but it is always maturing.

Kade Wilcox: Hey guys, welcome to The Primitive Podcast. I'm Kade Wilcox, your host. I'm joined again this week by Annie Gilbert, our chief staff. And this week, on this episode, we're going to talk about establishing core values. So you may have noticed if you've listened to the podcast for very long that we try — honestly we have a ton of leaders on the podcast, as the essence of our podcasts is a leadership podcast. We love having different guests. But we also try to talk a lot about culture.

We've interviewed several chiefs of staff of different organizations because that's how critical we believe that role is to every organization. And we believe culture is really critical at companies. And so, you know, you talk about the things you love and you talk about the things that are important to you, and culture is certainly one of those things. And so today we're going to talk a little bit about our culture, a little bit about our core values, and how we create those things. And obviously there's no one better to navigate this conversation, in my opinion, than Annie. And so that's what we're going to do today. So, Annie, thanks again for being on the podcast.

How Do I Identify My Company’s Core Values?

Annie Gilbert: Absolutely, happy to be here. So for startups and organizations who don't always have clarity early on for a shared vision and mission and core values, this can be a pretty daunting task to consider. And a lot of organizations are just — don't know where to begin. And so where would you say, Kade, that is a good place to begin this process of identifying an organization's core values?

Kade Wilcox: Yup, yup. I'm a real simpleton. And so for some people listening to this, this may sound so simple that it's not even helpful, but I actually hope it's the opposite. I tend to think the more complicated we make things, the more difficult they are to accomplish. And so, because that's been true for me, at least personally — and I think that almost might be a human thing — but for me personally, I try to really simplify things.

So there are three really distinct things that I think over the last two and a half years that we've taken this really seriously, have helped us. And here they are. Number one is what we call the four D's of culture. So the four D's of culture are this: you have to define your culture and this includes your core values, right? So this is answering your question, but the four D's of culture, you have to define your culture.

Four D’s of Company Culture

You have to document it. You literally have to write it down. You write down things that are important, right? And so you have to define it. So you have to document it, you have to discuss it, and you have to demonstrate it, and you have to do those things all the time. You never stop. And so the first thing would encourage someone who really wants to work through this in their own organization is the four D's of culture. So define it, document it, discuss it, and demonstrate it. And you have to do this all the time.

It’s Okay to Be Selfish With Your Values

The second thing that I think of when you're creating these values, you're thinking through who your culture is going to be, right? So you're in this definition stage of culture creation, it comes from your own personal beliefs and convictions.

Like, you cannot separate what you want for your organization, from who you are as a person. You literally cannot do it. And if you try it, it's going to be a disingenuous culture. Like, you can say your culture is going to be something, but if there's no element of who you actually are, then there'll be a disconnect and it'll be disingenuous. It won't actually happen. And it'll be a chaotic mess is what it will be. And so I think the other thing you have to think about when you're going through this process of creating culture, creating core values, is you have to think through them in a personal way. And that's okay. It's not selfish. I mean, if you're defining a culture or an organization's culture, you're either in a role where you've been entrusted so much with that, that that's your right and responsibility because it's been entrusted to you, or it's your organization and you would be abdicating responsibility and you would be being a poor leader if you didn't define those things.

And so don't feel bad when it's your personal convictions and your core beliefs that begin to shape your organizational culture. There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think it's the truest sense of culture, you know, because culture is nothing more than a bunch of individuals working together to go in a certain direction. So by nature it is very personal. So when you start the process of creating culture, that's okay if it starts out from a position of personal beliefs and personal convictions. So the first thing, if I were creating culture, and this is exactly how we've done it, is the four D's of culture.

Second is really understanding and tapping into your personal beliefs and convictions, and your teams, by the way. It doesn't just have to be just yours. Now it can start out that way. The way it's worked at Primitive is it started out that way, but then it's been shaped and nurtured over time by Annie's beliefs, and Heather's beliefs, and Jared's beliefs, and Jess's beliefs. And so it's a group effort, but it does start out at its core, you know, from your own vision.

You’re Not There Yet, But Always Aspire To Be.

And then third would be aspirational. You know, I think the best culture and the best core values are ones that already have elements of truth, but also are tremendously aspirational in nature. Like you're aspiring to become this. You know that you are not completely and perfectly what you say your culture is. You're enough of your culture that it's credible, it's true. Like someone could look at you and go, "Oh yeah, they really do believe these things because they see the fruits of those core values."

Those things that make up your culture, but they're aspirational in a sense that you're never — you've never arrived. You're never perfect at it. And I think that creates an authentic culture and an authentic culture is an attractive culture. And so those are the three things that we have done and are doing. Certainly, you know, creating culture and creating core values, it may be more than that, but for us, it hasn't been less. And I would say, you know, reflecting back on the two to three years, that we've really been doing this earnestly, compared to the previous six and a half to seven, it has made all the difference in the world for our company and, and not just culturally, but in, in the bottom line. Like we've never been healthier financially. The bottom line has never been, you know, more healthy. Our sales pipeline has never been more healthy. When you take culture and core values seriously, it will change every single layer of your organization in a profound way. And the reason I share that is because culture is one of those really easy things to talk about.

It's like the equivalent — I feel like the equivalent in our personal lives is talking about physical wellness. Like I never met anyone who doesn't want to feel good, who doesn't want to look good, you know? And yet it's super easy to talk about, and it is a hell of a difficult journey to actually go down the path of physical wellness. And I feel the exact same thing about culture in an organization. No one would say, "Oh yeah, cultural organization doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if we have a healthy culture or not." You know, no one would say that. But where the rubber meets the road is in the doing, and these are the things we've done, and are doing imperfectly but intentionally. And I think that's made all the difference.

What do you think I've missed? Because you've been a huge part of this as well.

Be Broad, Not Specific

Annie Gilbert: The only thing that comes to mind that I would add is really just focusing on developing core values that are more broad than they are specific. And I think that's important for a couple of reasons because of what you said about personal convictions. I think that definitely has to be a part of it, but your core values also have to be values that people at your organization can relate to and can get on board with. And so if you try to be too specific, sometimes that's going to be more difficult for people to resonate with it. So I think just making sure that they're broad enough to get people to buy into it, to get on board with it, and then it may look different for how it plays out for them than it does for you, but it's still the same value at its core. And it just looks a little bit different in how it works itself out. So that's something that I would add.

And yeah, I mean, I think the rest of what you said is exactly right. It's how we've done it. It's the important aspects of all of those four D's. They have to be a part of the process for it to be done well. And so — and it's ongoing. You know, it doesn't stop. You continue to redefine it in ways that make sense, and you continue to document it as you redefine it; you are always discussing it and hopefully always demonstrating it. And so I think that the broadness also is what you talked about with aspirational. It allows room for growth. And so if you're too specific, it's too — sometimes you do get to the point where you're like, "Okay, we've done this. Where do we go from here?" And so I think if it's more broad, than there's always room to grow.

Kade Wilcox: Yeah, yeah. That's really good. I think you're so, so right. And culture is like maturity in life, right? Like, if we are good, healthy people, we're always maturing relationally, emotionally, spiritually, physically, the way we manage our money. Like healthy things are always maturing. And I think the same is true of a culture. It's always maturing and always changing, not necessarily dramatically. In fact, I'd argue you shouldn't change dramatically if you're doing it well. But, it is always maturing. So it's really good. And I'm so grateful for, you know, five and a half, six years of unintentional failure and friction there, because I think it really put us in a place to grow out of that. And again imperfectly, but we're well on our way. And I'm super grateful for that.

Living Out Your Values

Annie Gilbert: What you were talking about with demonstrating it and really walking it out leads into the next question. How do you ensure that your core values are not simply framed on the wall? Which, you know, you hear that talked about a lot. It's, we say this is who we are, but do we really live it out? But they're actually employed as the lens through which decisions are made.

Kade Wilcox: Yup. This is good and very important. Or else it just becomes like this little token, you know, like it doesn't really mean anything, it's like — so I think this is a great question. I think it starts with leadership accountability. If the leadership of an organization just says something, but then does not take it serious in the way that they demonstrate it and model it, then it's nothing. It means nothing. It's just a piece of paper. And so I think the very first thing is not the leadership team just saying they believe something, but them actually being held accountable to that. And so then when I start thinking about like, "Well, how would a leadership team be held accountable to their culture and their core values?" it would be like looking at how they spend their time demonstrating the culture.

And so I would say that what we've kind of tapped into at Primitive over trial and error is creating intentional space for our culture to be demonstrated and for it to kind of manifest itself, which sounds really weird saying the words "manifest itself." All these people are going to think this is a philosophy podcast. I assure you that it is not. But, you have to create these — the space for your culture, you know, to happen. And I think we do that. I think it happens in our leadership meetings. I think we literally created communication cadences, you know, literal physical space within our distributed and remote team to, you know, to have this happen. So, it happens in our leadership meetings. It happens in our hiring process. It happens in our monthly all-team meeting. It happens in, you know, the community cohorts that, Annie, you have set up that have four or five people in each cohort.

It happens in these donut meetings, you know, when individuals get together for 15 to 20 minutes, you know, just to get to know each other. Those things are intentional and they're a demonstration of our culture, right? They're demonstrating elements of our culture, for example, by community. Well how can you be in community if you are not present with one another? How can you be present with one another if you don't have space to be with one another? And so this is the critical component, I think, of demonstrating, you know, demonstrating your culture.

I think of, "Okay, well, how would Primitive, you know, demonstrate our discipline core value?" Right? And I think of our — the way we evaluate each other, our employees like our teammates, like how do we do evaluations? Like, that is a space and a place for accountability and for discipline to be evaluated?

And so these are the things I think of when, you know, you start thinking about culture. Kinda like the rubber meets the road versus just being this pretty little designed document, you know, that we send to every new employee and we, you know, we talk about at our annual all-team meeting, or whatever. Like there's a real difference from that versus it being like this daily thing. And these are some of the things I think are so critical.

What would you add to that in terms of what is really important for leaders in organizations to do, to really make the culture matter, and not just be this, you know, pretty little document?

Annie Gilbert: So I think practical application is so important and just providing opportunities for people to exhibit these values. And so a lot of what you talked about are great examples. I also had written down our performance reviews. What we do is we have developed our questions and then we have related them back to our core value. And so we are — we have a whole section with our performance reviews that is called core value alignment. And it is asking questions about things that that employee did related to all of our core values. And we have questions about all of those. And so it's really — there's where some accountability comes in to really being aligned, being on board, and exhibiting those things.

“We have kept them in front of us constantly.”

Something we did this year — which has been really rewarding, really great. I wish we would have done it sooner — but is having a quarterly focus.

And so we started out — we have our, sort of, in-team conference; our Primbound in January, and I sent out a quiz to everybody on our core values. And I took the questions straight from our culture guide, which explains and really fleshes out all of the core values and just to see kind of where people were. And so we felt really good in January if a person could name all of our core values. But beyond that, we really didn't have any expectations for what it looked like day to day. And so what we've done this year is we have done a quarterly focus. And so we have four core values right now, and so each quarter we focused on a different core value. We've had weekly assignments; we've had opportunities to just engage around what this looks like and what it means.

And it has just been a lot of fun and people have been creative with it. They've gotten on board with — we focused on wellness in the first quarter and we're finishing up community this quarter. And it's just been a lot of fun to see how it looks different for everybody, but how it still unifies us. And so it's been fun, but it's also been very intentional and very purposeful. And I guarantee you there's not anyone on our team now who could not name all of our core values because we have kept them in front of us constantly.

Kade Wilcox: Yeah. I appreciate what you said earlier. I meant to mention this. I appreciate what you said about core values being broad enough that, you know, it can take on different reflections, you know, in our people. I've never thought of it that way before you said that, but it's really true. And I'm about to share our core values. And I think you can see how different personalities and people with different backgrounds and people with different dispositions can kind of fit within the framework of your core values. And I admire that. I never thought of how it should be fairly, you know, broad. Not so broad it doesn't have definition, right? Not so broad that it doesn't mean anything, you know? So it is probably a balance, but it needs — the train tracks need to be wide enough that different types of trains can go down the train track. And I've never thought of that. And I appreciate you saying that. But that's good. That's really good.

Annie Gilbert: So this last question is what, if anything, would you have done differently when you reflect on the process of developing the vision, mission and core values of Primitive?

Lessons From Early Failures

Kade Wilcox: Yeah. This is really simple. Number one, I wish we would have thought of the four D's of culture sooner. I wish we would have done it from the very onset of starting the company. We just did it. You know, we were just doing the best we could with what we had. We'd never started a business before. So we were just learning as we went and the things we focused on were the things we focused on. And if I could unwind it and start over, I would define our culture much, much sooner.

We still would have failed. We still would have gone through all those things, which is good. I mean, those things are good for your organization, but I do wish — we took culture seriously from day one, but it was an incomplete version of culture.

It's a little embarrassing to say now, but again, we were just doing what we knew, which was very little. We had a cool office, you know, we tried to have flexible time off, you know, we kind of approached culture-building from a benefit standpoint. Like, what's the benefit of working here? You have a cool office, you have good coffee, you have flexible time off. Those things are not bad. And I do think they reflect your culture in some way, but they are not culture. I mean, making a lot of money and having a cool office is not culture. In fact, it's nothing. I mean, it's really not culture and that's kind of our — that was our approach. And I regret that. I mean, I wish we would've thought about this sooner. But it is what it is. I mean, you know, we _ yeah. I mean, it's like you can't unwind time, but I do wish we would've done it sooner.

And then second, and this is again very practical, and I would share this with any leader listening to this is, I wish we would have hired for your role, the chief of staff role, at around 20 employees. When in fact, we hired it much closer to 40 than 20, and we were way behind on that. And again, we were only doing the best we could with the knowledge we had. It's actually a really crazy story on how I had this vision for your role in the first place that I shall not share on this podcast, but if anyone emails me or sends me a message on LinkedIn, I might share it privately. I'm not going to share it on this podcast.

But I wish we would have hired you at 20 employees and not any later and not any sooner. And in fact, I was just meeting with someone about a month ago and their company's really growing and they think they're going to hire 20 or 30 people this year. And I said, "Hey, who's managing your culture, and ensuring that, and advocating for that, and helping with hiring process?" And I'm gonna talk about not talking about HR. So if you're listening to this podcast and you're a leader of organization, I am not talking about payroll. I am not talking about insurance benefits. I am not talking about approving time sheets or time off. All those things are important, and that is an important function of any organization. That is not the chief of staff job. It is not their role. And not — it should not be the role in my opinion.

And so the two things I wish we would've done: define our culture sooner, and then more importantly is hire your role around 20 employees. And I think that would have saved us a lot of pain, but more importantly than our own pain, because we've learned from that and I wouldn't replace that learning for anything, I think it's more the challenges we caused for other people. You know, we hired a lot of the wrong people. Sometimes they were just the wrong person, right, for the job. And then sometimes we were the wrong person for — we were the wrong fit for them, you know? It wasn't just they weren't good for us. A lot of times it just – we weren't what was good for them. And that wouldn't have been the case had we had someone like you sooner.

So that would be my encouragement for people to reflect on and to consider for their own businesses, for their own organizations.

Annie Gilbert: That was really the purpose of that question, you know, what can be helpful to people? Because I agree that failure is essential and it's how we learn, and it's how we know what to do better and differently. And I don't know that there's, you know — when I think about my time here, which I'm coming up on three years, I don't know that I would change anything because we are where we are today because of the struggles and because of what we've been through to get here and we've still got a long way to go. But it's exciting.

Kade Wilcox: I agree. Yeah. I think it's a good way of putting it.

Well, this has been really fun. You know if you're listening to the podcast and you listen regularly we'll get back to normal style interviews here very soon. You know, but this has been fun for us, you know, to reflect on our own leadership and what we're learning. And I think that's an essential component of getting better. It's not that, you know, what Annie and I shared over the last, what will be four total episodes, you know, are things that you need to adopt, you know, in their entirety. But it's essential to reflect on your leadership and identify who you are and what you're learning, as incomplete as those things may be, as a way to move forward. So what we've tried to do over the last four weeks is encourage you and share a little bit about what we've learned, but it's also as much about us continuing to learn and to reflect on our own journey as a way of getting better. And so thanks for indulging us, and we truly do hope that something we've shared over the last four different episodes of this style has encouraged you, and at a minimum, sparked ideas in your own mind for your own leadership and your own organization. So thanks again for listening to The Primitive Podcast. And Annie, thanks for being such a great host these last four episodes.

Annie Gilbert: Thank you for allowing me.

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