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Most corporate values are phony – here’s how we made Airbo’s

A post from Airbo’s CEO, Vlad Gyster. 

A few months back, during a team gathering, I wrote a LinkedIn post, about how my perspectives on corporate values had changed.

Values-Exercise-LI-Post

After the post, a few of our customers requested that we share how we came up with Airbo’s new values. I’m very happy with the exercise we ran with our team to come up with them, and I’m excited to share it with those that might find it helpful. 

Inauthentic values are destructive 

We believe that values should help people make choices about “how” to get work done.

For example, a marketer could get a customer testimonial done fast if they took a quote and anonymized it. Or, they could make the testimonial feel more real by getting the customer’s permission to use their name. What’s the right answer? Be fast or be real? 

At Airbo, it turns out that “Be Real” trumps “Go Fast.” But how would an employee know that? Without codified values, they couldn’t.

When I was a management consultant, I got to work with a lot of companies. I can’t remember seeing values that genuinely represented how a given company actually got work done. Too often, it’s just a laundry list of things management wishes were true.

That left me with a lot of skepticism toward values. Done poorly, values can do more harm than good.

When a company has inauthentic values, it’s inadvertently undermining employee engagement and performance. Imagine being a new hire, eagerly absorbing your new employer’s values, only to immediately hit pushback from a seasoned employee that “it’s not the way things actually work.” Would you still be excited about your new gig?

Imagine being a seasoned employee, reading phony values. Would you take management’s culture-building initiatives seriously, or would you roll your eyes? 

Phony values add up to lower company performance.

This is exactly why, for a long time, I avoided writing Airbo’s values down. Quite frankly, I really didn’t know what they were, and I didn’t want to confuse people or lose credibility by telling them the wrong ones. 

Recently, I realized that the absence of codified values (along with mission and vision) was starting to hold Airbo back. It’s no longer possible for Kate and me to communicate our values on a 1-on-1 basis. We needed to write them down.

How we made authentic values

Our basic premise: 

Great values should be an authentic representation of who a company actually is today versus who it aspires to be someday. 

We wanted to avoid accidentally introducing aspirational values that would mislead employees about how we get work done.

The question then becomes, how can you tell between a real value and an aspirational one? 

Kate and I didn’t trust ourselves. Wishful thinking is just too tempting. So instead, we turned to our team to create them. We believe this bottom-up approach has the best chance of representing our real values versus what Kate and I wish was true.

As a fully remote team, we hold quarterly in-person retreats where we focus on “fun stuff” like team building through karaoke, pedal pubs, and shared meals, and “business stuff” like strategic planning, cross-departmental meetings, and workshops. 

Our Q1 retreat timing aligned perfectly with our desire to codify our values, so we ran our team through an exercise to create them.

Airbo Values Exercise 

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Here’s how we structured our values workshop. 

  1. Establish “The Why”
  2. Split Up
  3. Create Your Playing Cards
  4. Play!
  5. Document
  6. Present
  7. Codify

1. Establish “The Why”

We gathered our team in a big conference room. I kicked things off by establishing “The Why” behind the values exercise. 

“Values codify how we do work. We have new teammates onboarding soon, and the values we develop will help them be more successful here. We have a big opportunity to help them!

A lot of values aren’t very good because they don’t actually describe how people get work done. 

We’re going to do something different, something authentic.”

There was a noticeable vibe shift in the room. People were excited to personify Airbo and eager to be a part of developing our values.

2. Split Up

We began by breaking out into cross-departmental groups. To prevent group-think, we only let people sit together that didn’t typically work together. 

3. Create Your Playing Cards

10 minutes

To start, we wanted to tap each person’s first-hand experience with our values, so the first exercise was independently done by every Airboer. 

Each group member got a stack of blank playing cards

Then, we provided a prompt, “If Airbo was a person, how would you describe them today?” 

It was imperative to specify that we’re looking to describe who Airbo currently is, not who we hope to be someday, as we wanted our values to reflect who we actually are. 

To answer the prompt, each Airboer created about ten cards, writing a phrase or adjective that represented a potential value on each card.

4. Play!

30 minutes

Now for the fun part. We wanted to get people to converge around common themes that they had independently identified. We wanted to get them talking and discussing. 

We treated it like a game. A member of the team would throw down the card. Like a game of “Go Fish.” 

If another person had a similar card, they would throw it down as well. This led to piles of same/similar adjectives. 

Each pile represented a possible value, with a variety of ways to describe it. 

5. Document

10 minutes

Once all of the cards had been played, groups appointed a member to type up their list of adjectives into a document. 

Then, together, the group chose the strongest adjective to be the main word for each category, wrote a short description for that word, and nested all of the additional possible adjectives beneath it. 

6. Present

10 minutes 

Once all of the teams had finished with their lists, we took the final 10 minutes for presentations. Each group shared its list of values, including descriptions and supporting adjectives. 

Here’s what was so striking to Kate and me: there was a lot of overlap from group to group throughout the exercise. To us, this was a great sign. We had a cohesive, genuine set of values. Multiple interdisciplinary teams were coalescing around a common set of themes! 

7. Codify

After returning from our Q1 retreat, I had all of the groups send me their lists. Kate and I are now working on turning this list into a finalized set of values, which we look forward to sharing with you all in a future post. Stay tuned!