“Talent wars” are being waged across the US. Companies are fighting to attract and retain top talent in a hyper-competitive marketplace, and many are turning to their brand to showcase how their organization is about more than work and dollars. Too often, prospective hires ask questions about the values and benefits of working for an organization, and companies answer with talk of catered lunches, on-site masseuses and dogs in the office. But perks are not values. On-site arcade games say “fun,” but they don’t show what is expected of employees and what kind of person excels in the organization. Marketers know that clearly defining the company’s purpose and what your brand offers customers is paramount for building relationships — and that’s just as true when appealing to prospective employees. Superficial and easily replicable privileges only get you so far with both.
Instead, focus on identifying and expressing your values in meaningful ways. Values are the backbone of a powerful employer brand. They help create the shared culture and standards of behavior that impact how your team acts and works together. They provide clearer indicators of what it’s like to be a successful employee, and therefore help you to better market yourself as an employer.
Thanks to a rise in job-hopping and decentralized workforces, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to show your employees what your values are and what they mean to their work and to their clients. And yet, employees who understand and share your company values are not only happy team members, but they become enthusiastic stewards of a positive experience for your clients. Values aren’t espoused overnight, though. As a leader, moving from “this matters to me” to “this matters to the company” to “this matters to you as an employee” is a process, and one that begins at the top.
Turn values from implicit to explicit
When you begin a company, the divide between you and your company can be blurry. The values you hold come from your heart and they are passed on contagiously, and — through osmosis — they manifest throughout every aspect of your company. But what happens when you reach a point where major decisions — the leadership of a new service area, the hiring of a critical new team member, the handling of something you know nothing about — are entrusted to someone else? How do you ensure that new employees understand your values, and interact with each other and clients in a way that reflects those values? At this point, it’s time to identify and articulate the common “je ne sais quoi” that makes a successful employee, and spread the word in a way that your growing team really understands.
As an example, when our leadership team faced these questions, we turned to our employees at the time, identifying what our values really were and how we could define and use them to attract like-minded candidates. In the course of these conversations, we considered what would differentiate two candidates with identical experience, and we realized that it’s the non-LinkedIn qualities, essentially their values, that determine whether someone would be the right fit for our team. Today we call those values our Guiding Principles and, true to the name, they shape our own employer brand: how we hire and how we work together.
Evaluate employees against your values
The key to translating values from CEO to subsequent team members is finding ways to bring those values back to each employee’s individual experience. While there have been campaigns waged against the performance review, evaluating behaviors and work against the values that your company espouses is a powerful way to ensure employees understand your expectations and feel like they have a clear path for growth. Some companies frame interview guides and employee evaluation questions around these values. Zappos, a perennial culture-favorite, has developed peer-to-peer rewards for exceptional work, reflecting back on its value of “Building a Positive Team and Family Spirit.”
In 2011, software company Atlassian felt its twice-yearly review system didn’t spur discussions and motivate employees, so Atlassian took apart its review process, analyzed it, and published its results publicly. In the process, the company developed a more organic and encouraging review system, allowing for peer reviews, continuous honest feedback and increased professional development. By overhauling its system, the company developed a process that brought to life its core values of teamwork and honesty – two pillars of its employer brand.
Activate your values through your actions
To ensure that your employer brand values are living and breathing, it’s important to find ways to bring them to life where your employees will see and feel them, from your hiring guidelines to professional development efforts to workspace design. Our Principles, for instance, appear in employee initiatives throughout the year, such as special surprise gifts on Valentine’s Day that remind team members to “Fall in Love.” For Adobe, creativity and collaboration are at the center of the company’s values, so the company’s office is being designed with increasing plug-and-play technology allowing teams to meet and share ideas more easily. TD Ameritrade has taken a page from tech powerhouses and hosts “The Thinkoffs”: a hackathon that encourages employees to develop new product offerings that solve business challenges for customers, playing off values of working together and being client centered. For those familiar with experiential marketing, this probably sounds familiar.
The importance of values and company culture is well documented and opined on endlessly. The process of identifying values isn’t one-size fits all. There are many potential approaches, but it’s important to keep in mind that codifying them is just the first step. Once those values are defined, socializing them and threading them through to where your employees operate every day — their work, their teams, their space — is a very impactful and very necessary challenge of leadership.
Barbara Apple Sullivan is Founder and Managing Partner of brand engagement firm Sullivan. She founded the firm over 25 years ago to fill a gap she spotted earlier in her career as a marketing professional in the financial services industry. Namely, that there was a need for an agency dedicated to helping complex businesses bridge the gap between brand and customer interaction at the product and service level. Today, she’s grown Sullivan into a firm of more than 70 people and maintains responsibility for the quality of all work.