Starting from scratch with company culture: discovering core values

When I read the job description for the Director of Operations role at Support Driven, there were a couple of pieces that jumped out at me and made me think, I want this job:

We don’t focus on growing the number of users, we focus on growing the value of what we do for the people in our community.


Now is an amazing time to join Support Driven. It’s still in its early days and you would have a significant role in charting the course of our growth. Your efforts will define how we work and shape our business. You will have a direct impact on the careers of customer support professionals.

Grow value. Chart the course. Have a direct impact on the careers of customer support professionals. Define how we work.

Sign me up, please!

When I joined full-time, I could not wait to start working in this capacity in my role. I brought distributed communication, organization, people-leading, department-co-leading, and documentation habits from my work at Automattic, and these helped cultivate some operational structure in the behind-the-scenes work at Support Driven.

But after a few weeks on the job, I realized, hmm. The things I’ve brought so far are mostly mechanical. They don’t address the human element of Support Driven: our values, our purpose, our soul. They don’t address our culture, or seek to cultivate it.

They don’t answer the question, “What is special about Support Driven, and why should anyone care?”

I knew this was important. Knowing what is special and what an organization values will drive all of its internal decisions: who to work with, what projects to take on, what direction to take when choices need to be made, how we will know if we are fulfilling our purpose.

“Company culture” in that context becomes overwhelming — it drives everything! — and I didn’t have an entry point. I didn’t know where to begin. I read some books, and core values appeared repeatedly as a critical piece. In Traction, the resource I mentioned yesterday that I love for its practical how-to advice, the very first step in creating a solid foundation for an organization is to define its core values.

When I was still digesting Traction and trying to decide how much of it to implement, I asked a distributed people ops community I’m a part of, “How did you know where to begin with shaping company culture? What’s the first step?”

And the answer I received:

It’s important to have the culture aligned with the company’s core values. So I’d say, if you don’t have core values yet, that would be the place to start.

This answer sealed it. It validated the affinity I was feeling for Traction‘s approach, and came at the right time for me to make a decision on what our first step would be.

The entry point into company culture for us would be Core Values.

Discovering Support Driven’s Core Values

I’m using the word discover rather than define because when it came down to distilling Support Driven’s core values, and what we will want to be attentive to as we act in service to the community, it was absolutely a discovery process. We did not sit down in a room and say, “These are the values we think we should have.” Instead, we looked at the community to see what values are already exhibited: what qualities are native to Support Driven, and ultimately draw members and makes the community special?

To discover Support Driven’s core values, Scott (Support Driven organizer), myself, and several community members who are engaged and consistently contributing, who know and care about Support Driven, and who attended Support Driven Expo gathered in Portland at the end of the first day of the conference.

We had homework to complete before our meeting, which came directly from Traction:

    1. 1. List 3 people who, if you could clone them to support and serve the Support Driven community, you’d be certain they’d be wildly successful.
    1. 2. List the characteristics those people embody. What qualities do they exemplify? What do they do that puts them on the list?
    1. 3. Bring your list of qualities (and names if you’d like) to the meeting in Portland.

During the meeting, we each shared our lists. We wrote all the qualities on a white board, using dots as tallies when a quality showed up more than once.

SD Core Values

Then came the hard part, and the fun part: narrowing the list to five values. This was the part of real discovery. As we discussed the different words on the board, we realized some qualities were nice to have but weren’t core, fundamental guiding principles. Others on the list might make someone feel excluded, going against the inclusivity we truly value (discovery! Inclusion is very important to Support Driven).

We grouped qualities by theme, talked about what might be missing, and scratched out items that might be personal values for our specific roles (for example, I listed “delivers” multiple times for people I had named. I really value follow-through 😀).

Then we had a rough draft of our five core values.

core values collection words
After grouping and winnowing

The final step was to choose concise words that capture the essence of each core value. This process of word choice inspired wonderful discussion that as a word nerd, I adored. If we’re only using one or two words per core value, then the words have to be ae distillate of all the information that led to this point: the dozen or so qualities that led to each core value

Our working Core Values

After our time together, I took the five collection words back home with me and wrote up some context for each one. We will let these sit for a few weeks and revisit them as necessary. For now, these are our working core values. They will help guide us with operational decisions at Support Driven:

  • Safe belonging
  • Community
  • Sustainability
  • Collective learning and inquiry
  • Substance

Safe belonging: we are a welcoming, friendly, compassionate, and inclusive community who aim to create a space where community members feel they are among friends.

Community: we are people-first, and everything we do is in service to the community.

Sustainability: we’re not here to maximize profits or shareholder value. We’re here to sustainably create products and services for the community. We are not “go big or go home”, we are small and steady.

Collective learning and inquiry: we are helpful and feel safe asking for help. We share expertise. We mentor. We understand not everyone’s company is the same, and we know the answer is often “it depends”: we share our experience while also being inquisitive to highlight the unique needs of each company.

Substance: we don’t focus on growing the number of SD users, we focus on growing the value of what we do for the people in our community. We carefully consider projects, expenditures, and sponsorships to ensure that they are substantive and add worth rather than flash.

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