FounderFuel: How team values can be a rallying force for a growing start-up


As founders, we’ve probably all sat down at some point and written a list of values for our ventures, but are these values effectively driving the team culture? Values at their best are about shaping how team members work together; they are about behaviours, and they can be a powerful rallying call for a scaling team.

The idea of culture is often held up as some magical force in a business – one that is hard to define and even harder to change. When we work with startup teams, we focus on demystifying this – it’s about behaviours – the normalised behaviours you have in your team that make you effective. Culture is made up of values, and values live and breathe with your behaviours.

When we all start out, the culture tends to come from the founders because it is our behaviours that creates the team norms. Of course, that means good and bad behaviours – so if you make the customer experience the centre of your world, the team will too; but if you are fiery in conflict, or shy away from real feedback, that will pass on too. Whatever you do, it filters down to everyone as an unspoken rule for what good looks like in your team. So defining these values and behaviours can be the powerful factor in creating a team that works well together and delivers a consistent experience to your customers.

If your team had to row the Pacific, what would your values be?

At our FounderFuel Live session with world-record holder Laura Penhaul she brought to life how powerful values can be as a team, and how, once you have them, they can help with everything from conflict resolution to team celebration, making them a vital ingredient for navigating the choppy waters our startups go through.

Laura Penhaul and her team set two World Records in January 2016 by rowing unsupported across the Pacific in an incredible feat of endurance and tenacity. Covering 9,000nm, it took 9 months to complete, 4 years to prepare for and was captured in the Netflix documentary Losing Sight of Shore. To make this happen, they co-created a powerful set of values and used these to drive high-performing team behaviour. It is from this that we can learn as startup leaders. Using Laura and her team as an example, we’ll dive into how start-ups can think about culture, using values as the steer to get there.

When values really mean something…

It’s fair to say values sometimes get a bad rep. Thanks to big corporations over-using values like Integrity, Excellence and Innovation, we tend to question if they mean much in practise. But done well, they become a guiding light that defines how team members work together, what decisions are made, what gets prioritised and what gets rewarded. Check out the Values of Atlassian – it’s clear to see how these values guide behaviours internally and externally:

Open Company, no bullshit

Build with heart and balance

Don’t #@!% the customer

Play, as a team

Be the change you seek

In the case of Laura and her team, they had a clear set of values which guided their team behaviours – even when the team changed, which we all know can happen all too often in a startup too. Their overarching purpose was “finish as a team”, behind which sat a powerful intent to prioritise team unity, over winning at all costs. Their values broke down what it actually meant to work as a team and deliver on their purpose, and were summarised into the acronym SPIRIT, which meant:

Strength, Perseverance, Integrity, Resilience, Inspiration and Trust

Critically, these weren’t just words – together the team developed a picture of the behaviours that demonstrated these values, this is the element that shifts values from words on a wall to something of power; to something that guides decisions, day-to-day interactions and creates a consistent team culture.

For example, when the going got tough or the team disagreed with what to do about an obstacle (there were many, including a fire on the boat!) they came back to these six words and make a decision that aligned to their values, in pursuit of their purpose.

Not only that, but these values also underpinned how they interacted every day. With four people living and working 24/7 in the confined space of a small boat, conflict was inevitable. Anticipating this, they set up their weekly team meeting to include constructive feedback conversations and resolve conflicts that were guided by the values. Using the values helped them bridge their differences and always remain clear on the common goal.

Making values work hard for your startup

Hire on values and behaviours not skills – Sure, skills clearly matter, but what makes a team work is aligned values and behaviours. We’ve had many a conversation with founders about that type of proactivity we need in our startup teams. We can see it in many team values too, from Atlassian’s “Be the change you seek” to LinkedIn’s “Act Like an Owner”, and that’s a behaviour not a skill. Similarly, putting your customer at the centre of your universe (“Don’t #@!% the customer”) is a behavioural mindset, not a skill.  Once you know what makes your startup successful, internally and externally, you can use that as a behavioural blueprint for hiring great people. Not only that, having a powerful purpose and clear values can sway good candidates to choose you too.

Values and behaviours govern decisions –  We’ve all faced tough decisions as founders – whether it is what to build with limited resources, or whether to let someone go, values are the guiding light. Love it or hate it as a brand, one of Apple’s longstanding values is “We believe in the simple, not the complex” and you can see it in their product decisions vs the competition. Using values to make decisions can help us make the right decision – a decision aligned to our competitive advantage – even if it’s a tough one to make.

Make the day-to-day based on your values and behaviours – The ways teams and individuals interact with each other is a big part of your culture. Like Laura’s team, you can define how team members should treat each other through your values. Atlassian elaborates on their “Open Company, no bullshit” value giving a clear directive on what this means for how team members treat each other:

we understand that speaking your mind requires equal parts brains (what to say), thoughtfulness (when to say it), and caring (how it’s said).

Want some values?

If you already have a set of values… Take a step back and interrogate if they’re living and breathing in your team. Understanding what the team thinks about the values can be a good gauge of whether the values are working, or if they’re a list that has been forgotten along the way. Use this as a starting point to co-create more powerful values and behaviours with the team. Involving the team in the process helps create a sense of shared ownership in a startup, rather than the team working towards the founder’s “baby”.

If you’re doing values from scratch…  Bring in the whole team and work on them together, but don’t start with the values! Asking about values can often derail the conversation into personal values (sometimes very personal, or too ethereal). Instead, start a discussion around the behaviours that make your team effective. We like to do this in pairs first, then regroup to review all the ideas on post-its. As you come together, you’ll start to see groupings and these groupings can be formulated into a value. From here, you can build on these to incorporate behaviours you’d like to see going forwards too. That way your values start to reflect the behaviours that actually make you effective as a team and as a business for your customers.   

And in both cases…. Keep them alive and keep building on them as the business evolves! Values are a living and breathing thing that will only work if everyone buys into them, so by bringing them into daily aspects of the start-up, from team meetings, to client interactions and the decision-making process, we are able to inch closer to our startup’s purpose on a daily basis.


Written by Christina Richardson, founder at weare3Sixty
Founder coach & trainer | Startup exec-team coach | FounderCircle® creator & head-coach. Passionate about sustainable founder performance, wellbeing and the leadership transition from founder to C-suite.

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