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[Guest Post] Fearless Confessions: How to Choose the Right Values for Your Company

Welcome to part three of the Fearless Confessions series, where PivotDesk and Justworks help entrepreneurs tackle the more difficult aspects of leading a business through insight, ideas, and inspiration. You can check out parts one and two here.

In the third part of this series, Justworks interviewed their CEO, Isaac Oates, on how to create and sustain company values — something many businesses realize they started too late in the game.

Q: How did you determine Justworks’ company values?

Back when the company was just four of us, we all took an afternoon in my apartment in Brooklyn. We sat around and talked about the people who we admired or respected, then made a long list of things those people embodied.

In the end, we came up with a list of values — eight phrases. They were difficult to remember, so later when we had a brand consultant, we boiled them down to five words: Compassion, Openness, Grit, Integrity, and Simplicity. Or, COGIS. We still show employees the original phrases during orientation.

Q: Why did you decide that setting company values was so important early on?

When I worked at Etsy, they articulated their company values when they had several hundred employees. They had a committee come up with these values, which is fine. But it was a strange experience to be told one day what the company’s new values are. It’s different if you come on board and already know.

I knew these squishy things were important to do early on. I believed we would become big and be around for a long time. So I thought if we could establish those values early on, it would help everybody make sure employees more consistently resonated with those values when they came on board. We cared a lot about what kind of company we were going to be.

Q: What other companies did you work at with clearly stated company values? Did they live up to them?

Amazon did, and their values are pretty well known. I’m pretty sure they did those before I started in 2002, and I thought they were spot on for the company. The most important thing is to use those values in the interview process.

Q: When did you start deliberately interviewing for company values? How did you go about that process?

We hired a consulting company called Recruiting Toolbox early in the lifecycle of the company, when our team was about 35 or 40 people.

People don’t think of interviewing as a skill because it’s possible for anybody to sit in a room with a candidate and say whether on not they like that person. But I wanted to make sure people knew how to interview really well, because in the end, the people you hire have a more lasting impact on the company than anything else you do.

Q: How do you ensure that new employees are aware of company values and continue to embody them as more people join?

People already have their own value system they get from their parents, upbringing, and life experiences. Nobody’s going to change their values because of the company they work at. All you can do is find people whose value system matches the company values system. It’s less about reminding people of company values and more about knowing they’ll already do it because it’s hardwired into their DNA.

Q: Justworks has grown rapidly over a short period of time. Have you ever considered whether there would be a necessity to change the company’s values as it evolves?

Not at all. We abbreviated them so people could remember better, but that was the only kind of change. Our values are spot on.

There’s who you are and what you do. Our values tie strongly into who we are. It makes us good at what we do.

Q: One of Justworks’ values is “openness.” In the future, as we grow from more of a startup culture to a corporate culture, how do you plan on balancing the idea of “radical transparency” with less key stakeholders in major company decisions?

Sometimes there are practical constraints about what we can’t share. There’s this idea that the bigger your company gets the more opaque it has to be. But people think that because bigger companies are older and were built by a different generation with different viewpoints. People draw a connection that if you’re big you can’t be transparent, but I don’t think that’s true.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is trying to formulate values for their company?

Do it as early as possible. At the beginning, the value system the company has will mirror what the early people have. Assuming you’re satisfied with that, it’s a simple exercise. I think as you get bigger, it becomes more difficult.

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