I was born into Generation X, and like many others from my generation, I can lapse into cynicism when I don’t check myself. I sometimes react to earnest action with suspicion and look for the angle even if there isn’t one to be found. When Steve Kokinos and I started Fuze, we were focused on solving customer problems and working hard to build a company and a platform. Making wall-sized printouts with company values was not something that we wanted to do and it did not seem necessary. That was something that big companies did, and in those big companies, people didn’t read or take those values to heart. Instead, we wanted to lead by example. We told ourselves that we would create a culture that implicitly enforces our values. Everyone would see how we behave and absorb our values as the company values. If anyone got out of line, we would have a conversation with them to give them a nudge in the right direction.
This informal approach worked for some time, mainly because we stayed a relatively small company in the early years. Steve and I knew and had direct personal connections with the employees, even as the company grew upwards past 100 employees. At most, we were one step removed from any employee at Fuze. Steve maintained a policy of interviewing everyone that was hired at Fuze for a long time to maintain that individual connection. But once we rounded the corner to a couple hundred employees by the end of 2014, it was increasingly difficult to sustain these direct connections. 2015 was our breakout year where we more than doubled in size. By the end of 2015, there was simply no way to know or have a personal connection with every employee working at Fuze.
I woke up one day, and not only saw lots of employees that I didn’t know well, but I also witnessed behaviors that didn’t make sense to me. Behaviors that weren’t keeping in with Steve’s and my original vision about how we should work together, and what we wanted Fuze to be. What I have come to understand is that as you grow as a company, you must be very explicit about formally communicating your company values and the behaviors that you want to encourage and discourage.
We recently went through a company-wide, employee-driven exercise to create formal company values. The values that resulted were:
Think Like Customers, Act Like Owners – This speaks to being able to understand the customers point of view and to incorporate that thinking into what you do. Since we started Fuze, understanding what our customers need and acting quickly on those needs has been a key part of our success.
Challenge Conventional Wisdom – This was the most popular theme which came directly from employee feedback. Since we are a private company competing with much larger public companies, we must be more audacious, have more courage, and be more adaptive to win. We wanted to make it clear that we value dissenting and alternative opinions when expressed respectfully.
Take Action and Deliver Results – Many felt strongly that we needed a value that spoke to having a strong bias to action and a data-driven focus on results. We wanted to recognize that teams are most effective when they have a strong operational rhythm in place.
Great People Do Great Things – We define a great employee as an employee that is curious, humble, empathetic, trustworthy, intelligent, and effective. These are the traits that we encourage, recognize, and promote against.
We Only Win as One Fuze – This was universally seen as the most important value. When you set up incentives and goals for employees and departments, you can sometimes lose sight of the big picture: that individual needs must take a backseat to the needs of Fuze as a whole. We believe it is necessary to recognize and encourage behavior where individual employees put Fuze’s interests ahead of their own.
I’m happy to have played a part in rolling out these values to the entire company. We employed a bottom-up strategy that incorporated inputs from all parts of the company. This democratic process was important to us because we believe our values are simultaneously a reflection of who we are and who we want to be. I am sometimes asked by earlier stage entrepreneurs what I have learned since starting Fuze, and while the list is long, one of the most important lessons for me is the importance of formal company values. Not agreeing on values will lead to conflict and ultimately to a moral crisis. I suggest to even early stage startups that I meet with to be explicit about their values and to use those values to enforce their culture. I may be skeptical and cynical at times, but I won’t underestimate the importance of explicit company values again.