• Susanne May

Don’t f*ck up the culture

Four simple steps to build your culture code.

Vigor, passion, vision. These sound like pretty good values, don’t they? Strong, modern, and meaningful. Maybe they even resemble your own company’s values. If so, you might be surprised to hear where they come from. These are the corporate values of Wirecard, formerly the fastest growing German DAX company which made headlines for the country’s biggest accounting scandal in 2020. As this event has proved again, values can be meaningless when they are not alive and connected to people’s daily experience.


Over the last 20 years, I have implemented cultural change in organizations by aligning company values to people’s behaviors and actions. Unfortunately, I see that most value statements just sit on paper. Leaders and employees often do not embrace the core values, therefore not embedding them within the entire organization. Most decision makers still do not see “the value of working on values,” despite solid research of more 50 years and results from culture practitioners such as Google, Patagonia, Intuit, Nordstrom, Whole Foods, Southwest Airlines, Zappos, and more.


In his message sent to employees titled “Don’t fuck up the culture,” Airbnb’s co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky emphasized the importance of truly living core values to ensure the company’s uniqueness and longevity. “It’s living the core values when you hire; when you write an email; when you are working on a project, when you are walking in the hall. We have the power, by living the values, to build the culture. We also have the power, by breaking the values, to fuck up the culture. Each one of us has this opportunity, this burden.”


Aligning core values to people’s behaviors and actions is the missing link in the culture alignment equation. As a best practice, involve your team from the beginning. The process then takes place in real time, accelerating the creative process and helping the team embrace the values.

We recently reworked our values with this equation in mind. Before COVID-19 spread in March, the May & Company team gathered in our homey office in Berlin Mitte to revisit our values and match them to our behaviors. We used a simple “Dos and Don’ts” tool partially borrowed from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to identify behaviors that embody or disagree with our values. To do this we followed four simple steps you can easily implement in your company:


Step 1 – Align team and personal values: Reflect on your company’s core values, taking the time to brainstorm what truly matters for you and what you wish to instill in your company. Everyone in the team should reflect on their own personal values as well, as teams are most successful when the personal values of the members are aligned with the company values. Then schedule a workshop with your team and let them complement, criticize, or question the core values you suggest in relation to their own personal values. It’s important here that you let go of your ego in this process – alignment is more important. Act as a facilitator and clarifier instead of defending your values.


Step 2 – Tie the values to behaviors: As a next step, define with your team “Dos and Don’ts” for each of your core values. Allow each team member to have an equal voice during the workshop to prevent a situation where only extroverts speak. Facilitate an inclusive process and then hand over the final editing to a talented writer in your team. Then publish the final values for everyone in the company to see. We created a beautiful poster in our brand color which is visible to everyone in the office and on our Sharepoint site.


Step 3 – Bring the values to life: Find a way to help your team understand how to bring your values to life. In our company, we created a values wall in our office. Each time a team member felt like there was a moment one of us truly represented our values, we would post a sticky note under the respective vale. We brought this into the virtual realm through a Slack channel as well. In addition, we have small and reinforcing practices which bring the values alive, such as a water-cooler Slack channel where team members share something personal to foster joyful collaboration and trust. This helps the team better see and understand the different ways company values can be represented.


Step 4 – Build a culture around your values: The last step is to build ongoing processes and organizational practices steeped in your culture as you begin to embed core values and actions in everything you do. Like learning a new language or starting a new sport, deliberate practice is key. Make your core values part of your business processes, from hiring and onboarding new team members to your weekly 1:1 meeting structures. You can use different techniques to help gauge whether your employees feel that the core values are embedded in the fabric, such as a rate the meeting tool. Ultimately, you will have to give everything a try to see what works for your own culture, values, and employees.


Living core values helps you create a strong culture of belonging and quality relationships which fuel empathy, motivation, and commitment to the company’s purpose and goals. As Gabi Rodrigues – Senior Consultant at May & Co. concludes “for me it is crucial to work in an organization that takes ownership of its values and that they are aligned with my personal values, as it means I belong here and feel empowered to show my true and best self.”