Dustin Wells and Glenn Burnside | Headspring

Working with and guiding fellow entrepreneurs has been a passion throughout my career. I’ve met leaders of companies at all stages of growth who are concerned with key business areas like sales, delivery, marketing, etc. These are all critical elements of growth, but none can flourish without one key ingredient: A strong culture rooted in a common set of beliefs and core values.

The culture we’ve created at Headspring is the result of an active development of our core values, based on shared ideology, and has been central to our engagement and growth.

You don’t have to be born with your credo carved in stone—in fact, the steps we took to establish ours were just as important as what emerged. Our company’s inspiring journey illustrates the value of finding this central set of tenants that can drive everything you do.

What is Core Ideology?

Core ideology is the critical belief system of your organization. These beliefs are non-negotiable. You’re not only willing to spend money to strengthen this ideology, but willing to lose money to uphold it.

Core Ideology should be central to your culture: It’s the difference between a growing organization with highly engaged employees and a stagnant organization with high turnover.

What are Core Values?

Core values are more than words or ideas—they’re rooted in your ideology, but live in your actions. Entrepreneurs hear a lot about core values and how important they are in driving talent acquisition, culture, and so on. The core values we created together were a big part of bringing the right team together at the right time.

Core values are crucial, but how do you find them, define them, and make sure they resonate with your employees? Here’s the process that worked for us:

Step 1 – Survey Your Team

In establishing core values, it was very important to me to get buy-in from our existing team. We had about 20 employees at the time. I explained that we are all here for a reason: All I wanted to do was identify the core beliefs and success traits that we all share. You might notice that I did not use the word “core values” yet. That was intentional—so many other companies refer to core values, but it is just lip service. I didn’t want prior experiences to jade what I was driving towards.

To get feedback, I asked Headspringers three questions:

  1. List the qualities that have led you to success in your life and career.
  2. Think of a successful organization that you have worked for in the past or one with which you are familiar. What qualities did that organization exhibit that you believe led to their success in making it a great organization?
  3. Based on your two lists above, rank in order from highest importance to lowest importance, the top 5 qualities that you believe make an organization truly great.

The answers I received from this brief survey were amazing. I learned a great deal about what drives each employee and what qualities are most important to them.

What we did is important, but maybe more important is what we did not do. For example, we did not send just the executive team on an offsite retreat to “find” our core values. Employee participation and buy-in were critical.

Step 2 – Distill The Data

Based on the survey feedback, I read, and re-read everything many times. I began grouping similar concepts together. When I did this and then reduced duplicate ideas, I ended with a list of five core values.

To make sure everyone saw their feedback, I included the values in a summary document that I shared with the team, which includes:

+ Core value
+ Brief sentence describing the value
+ Keywords taken directly from the survey supporting that value.

Here’s an Example:

Core Value: People are Valued

Description: We provide a work environment that attracts and retains top talent. We empower employees and give them trust, respect, and autonomy to do their best. We are accountable for our commitments.

Keywords: High-quality people, high-quality work environment, empower employees, trust and respect, autonomy, flexibility, humility.

Step 3 – Simplify

Following this, I had employees vote on the order our values should appear. This sounds like a trivial step, but it was important in helping us determine the most important value. The order was also different from how I would have ordered them. The bottom line in this process is we have a far stronger set of values that employees are bought into because they helped develop them, and they know it is part of our collective DNA.

Over time, we simplified the values and dropped the keywords section to make them clear, concise, and impactful. Then we tweaked the description iteratively as a team. Values, like people, are flexible—we expect they will continue to evolve as we grow. However, at the end of this journey we had a set of five core values and a clear description of what they mean to every Headspringer. Today, every new employee gets a one-pager with our values printed on it:

HEADSPRING’S CORE VALUES

**OWN YOUR EXPERIENCE**
 
We identify issues and participate in solving them. We accept challenges beyond our perceived abilities and strive to accomplish them. We know we can’t determine our circumstances, but we can determine our attitude and outlook. We are the authors of our own story.

**DRIVE FOR EXCELLENCE**

We have drive, motivation, and enthusiasm to achieve excellence. We have a strong work ethic and commit ourselves daily to deliver on the promises we make. We hold each other accountable for our commitments. We never give up.

**PEOPLE ARE VALUED**

We know that great software serves people, and not the other way around. We work together in a spirit of collaboration and service to others. Instead of “What’s in it for me”, We ask “How can I help?” We put others’ needs ahead of our own.

**HONEST COMMUNICATION**

We are honest and transparent with our clients and peers. We’re willing to speak up, even when we have bad news. We assume and extend trust by default. We communicate with empathy, support, and candor.

**PASSION FOR LEARNING & GROWTH**

We have a desire to be better. We’re willing to admit we might not have the answer. We are introspective and seek help when needed. We are always open to others’ feedback. We support each other in continuously learning. We believe there’s a Better Way, and we never stop seeking it.

Realizing Our Values

Moving forward, these values became the foundation of all our messaging, communications, and actions. They were our guiding light, keeping all engaged and on course as we grew the business over the years. The more we referred to them, made decisions based on them, and talked about them, the more of a positive impact they had. I’ve seen them come to life every day in our interactions with each other and with clients.

Across the organization, people have embraced and exemplified these principles—because they’re not just company jargon, they’re personal values. They’re the reason people come to Headspring, and the reason that they stay and do great things together.

People Are Valued: Core Values

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