Clearly defined cultural values can be an invaluable tool in an organization, and one that often is applied too late. By taking a little time to canonize your company’s culture you will put some guardrails in place to help keep the organization on the right track.

In this post, I’ll explain 5 key steps you can take to define your first cultural values at your startup, based on my experience contributing to, and later leading the creation of, cultural values in some of my prior roles.

What’s the value?

When I talk about cultural values, I’m referring to the core set of attributes that guide every employee in an organization about how they should work and interact with each other day to day. Put simply, Cultural Values are designed to describe how the firm and its employees should behave.

Early-stage startup founders might assume that because their culture seems to be working they don’t need to take time to crystallize their values. But what’s easy to miss is that culture is dynamic; it evolves over time and especially as the organizing changes (through hiring and attrition). Focusing solely on the hiring process to shape the culture won’t cut it. A new employee in an organization looks at hundreds of interactions with their coworkers to shape their interpretation of what is normal and what is expected of them. Will each new employee see the same examples? And will they interpret examples in the same way? This is where cultural values can help; they put up a big neon sign saying “this is the guidance you should be looking at!”

What’s more: in my experience culture almost always comes up as one of the top 3 reasons that an employee joined - and wants to stay at - a startup. When that culture changes negatively or an employee doesn’t feel a connection to that culture then it can also be one of the main reasons that employees end up leaving. So your company’s culture can either be one of the biggest contributors to retention or to attrition.

How do we define our culture?

There is no single recipe for how this should be done. And the right answer is much different for a larger organization than a smaller one. For this post, I will share some steps for an early-stage startup that is defining its cultural values for the first time, and an organization that seems to be generally on the right track with its culture. At Moss, I followed the playbook described below to define our first values which helped us through the first 10x of employee growth.

Don’t worry: this doesn’t have to be a huge exercise. Unless things are really not working and your culture needs a “reset”, this is more about making the implicit culture that you already have more explicit for current and future teammates.

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Step 1: Brainstorm with key employees

The goal is to tease out all the candidates for your cultural values.

Bring together 4-7 people for a brainstorming session. This will most likely include the founders and key early employees. Include teammates who are already setting a great example for others. If you need more than 7 people then organize them into multiple small group sessions.

Provide participants with some context to get them on board with what you’re trying to do and then walk through some prompts to help generate ideas. Here are some example prompts that you can use:

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