5 CEO Lessons on Company Culture and Core Values

Recognize This! – Clearly defined core values that balance each other underpin a strong, positive company culture.

Regular readers know I’m a fan of the New York Times “Corner Office” columns, which features weekly interviews with CEOs from firms across a wide range of industries. Two recent interviews from CEOs in widely disparate industries (a for-profit software company and a non-profit investment fund) taught similar lessons on the importance of company culture and clear values.

Lessons from Mark B. Templeton, president and CEO of Citrix:

Lesson 1: Hierarchy and respect are not mutually exclusive.

“You have to make sure you never confuse the hierarchy that you need for managing complexity with the respect that people deserve. Because that’s where a lot of organizations go off track, confusing respect and hierarchy, and thinking that low on hierarchy means low respect; high on the hierarchy means high respect. So hierarchy is a necessary evil of managing complexity, but it in no way has anything to do with respect that is owed an individual.”

Lesson 2: Culture is how a company gets things done.

“Most companies in software get things done through people. So our machinery is people, and to put it in technology terms, people are the hardware and our values are the operating system. So the culture starts with people with a common operating system around values and then, once you have that, you can build processes around how you actually get things done on top of that. But clarity around the hardware and the operating system to me is first and foremost, so it’s about people and our three values: respect, integrity, humility.”

Lesson 3: A values-driven culture can be a powerful motivator of employees.

“I think people generally want to belong to something of greater purpose that’s larger than they are. They’re just waiting for it to come along. And I think a culture around values is part of that. People say, ‘I want to be on that team, that club, because they believe in something and I actually believe in that, so I want to belong to that.’”

Lessons from Jacqueline Novogratz, chief executive of the Acumen Fund:

Lesson 4: Values can (and must) provide a balance.

“We think about our values in pairs, and there is a tension or a balance between them. We talk about listening and leadership; accountability and generosity; humility and audacity. You’ve got to have the humility to see the world as it is — and in our world, working with poor communities, that’s not easy to do — but have the audacity to know why you are trying to make it be different, to imagine the way it could be. And then the immutable values are respect and integrity.”

Lesson 5: Balanced values can provide clarity to achieve outsized goals.

“This goes back to audacity and humility. You’ve got to be audacious enough to set goals that make you stretch and give you clarity of vision and purpose. But you have to have the humility to know that this work is hard, and that you might not get there. If you start off talking about all the reasons that you’re not going to get there, you’re not going to get there. And so it’s holding that balance of not being reckless, but also having a huge element of fearlessness.”

What are important lessons you’ve learned about company culture and values?

Derek Irvine

About Derek Irvine

The VP of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their organizations. As a renowned speaker and co-author of "The Power of Thanks" and "Winning with a Culture of Recognition," he teaches companies how to use recognition to proactively manage company culture. Derek holds a B.Comm and Masters of Business Studies from the Smurfit Graduate Business School at University College Dublin.

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