How to Use the Power of Company Principles to Build a Thriving Culture
Thursday, August 10, 2023
August 2023
How to Use the Power of Company Principles to Build a Thriving Culture
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Unveiling the collaborative journey that shapes Ethic's growth and achievement

by Doug Scott

Company principles (or values, as some companies refer to them) are fundamental to the long-term success of every high-performing team. They spell out how the team strives to interact. They are a guide to help decision-making, especially when things are volatile, uncertain, complex, or ambiguous. They help provide the foundations for a long-lasting, thriving culture. 

Yet, if principles are so important, why do so many organizations struggle to live them successfully? I thought it might be helpful to share a little about our journey with principles at Ethic, how they’ve served us well, and outline some of the key lessons learned as we scaled from a few people with an idea to a fast-growing company fueled by $100 million in venture funding. It goes without saying that we do not have all the answers. I hope that by sharing some of our experiences, I might be able to help teams on a similar journey. 

The Early Origins: Shared Experiences as Our Guide

In the very early days, we typically only looked through two lenses: the very short term (e.g., delivering on the next weekly release) and the very long term (e.g., crafting our vision for the future). This was largely a result of necessity as, if we were to succeed, we needed to: 

  1. Clearly define the problems that our target clients are experiencing.
  2. Deliver a solution that we believed was at least 10X better than any existing offering.
  3. Articulate our vision for the future for each of our key stakeholders.

The founders and our early team members worked closely to solve problems with a shared appreciation of what was needed. We had incredible agility and adapted easily to new insights. Several of our early team members had worked together for years prior. We didn’t really need to spell out how we would work together as much as what was needed to get to a product-market fit. 

Our shared experiences incubated stories, which then served as a book of lessons to follow. Influenced by the leaders and organizations that inspired us, phrases like “think bigger,” “seek to add value,” and “start with why” began to emerge. These were then repeated. That is, our principles were implied through our shared experiences — both first and second-hand. The idea of being explicit with our principles felt a little too over-engineered, so we didn’t do it. 

Designing Our Principles: The Approach is as Important as the Outcome

We then hit product-market fit. We started to onboard clients quickly and raised more capital to help fuel our growth. Our small team doubled. Suddenly, the more difficult question was not what we needed to do but how to be the best partners in a fast-moving, scaling team. It was clear that the implicit principles of how we worked together as a team needed to be more explicit. That is: what got us here was not going to get us there. 

Our team began sharing examples of company principles from organizations we were inspired by. We asked our fellow entrepreneur friends for advice. We spent weekends brainstorming. We deep-dived into the cautionary tales of companies whose principles became catchy buzzwords designed to make them look good rather than reflect what made their team special. It felt like the difference between looking at a cookie-cutter stock photo and staring in awe at a masterpiece at the Met. 

Our team brainstormed, refined, and chiseled away at our principles for countless hours over several months. We facilitated dozens of interviews with team members and regrouped to reflect on what we were hearing to ensure we adequately captured the essence of everyone’s ideas. 

Ultimately, we aligned on six principles that we felt reflected our unique DNA:

  1. Relationships and Fun
  2. Humility and Gratitude
  3. Collaboration and Alignment
  4. Learning and Problem-solving
  5. Ownership and Care
  6. Thinking Big and Having Impact

How valuable that meticulous and inclusive design process was. The best inspiration for everyone to embrace and live our principles was to ensure each team member helped to create them. 

Living our principles: Meditation is the right metaphor

Straight from the launch of our principles across the company, we felt a real sense of team achievement. But I heavily underestimated the size of the challenge ahead of us: collectively designing principles is one thing, but living them collectively is something else entirely. 

We continued to scale our client base, team, and operations. We raised more funding to help fuel our continued growth. The faster we moved, the harder it was to integrate our principles successfully. As we added great new people to our team, it became harder to reinforce what made our culture special — and build on it. 

We set about embedding our principles into our culture, reinforcing them during meetings and interactions like a catchy drumbeat. We integrated them into our recruiting efforts, asking questions to prospective teammates that helped us determine whether they’d fit in well in the unique environment we had cultivated. We made sure our health plans for employees cover counseling and include flexible working schemes and unlimited vacation, reinforcing the idea that our emotional and mental health are key components to being our best selves while at work. We had weekly gratitude sessions at our regular all-team meetings, where we elucidated why we were grateful for our peers’ contributions, doing our best to recognize and respect examples of how we lived our principles. 

But like every person or organization with the best intentions, sometimes (perhaps more often than we’d like to admit), we were distracted by the urgent item of the day. At these times, we would forget to prioritize our daily and weekly practices of reinforcing our principles. While this could sometimes feel frustrating, it wasn’t worrying, as I was reminded of a similar practice: meditation. Meditation isn’t about sitting with a totally focused mind for 20 minutes. Instead, it’s about returning to your focus each time your mind wanders. And this is what we learned to do as we lived, or practiced, our principles. 

What’s Next: Like a Great Product, Principles Must Evolve

In a long enough time frame, everything changes. Our company principles are no exception. The question is whether to proactively adapt them or have them adapted for you.

We also strive to find ways to innovate how we integrate, embed, and celebrate our principles. For example, after we grew our team to about 50+ people, our all-team gratitude sessions were tough to maintain. Some team members weren’t as comfortable sharing as others. So, rather than put people on the spot, we began writing what we were grateful for in various forums and expressed verbal gratitude in smaller team settings. 

As we continue to grow and evolve as a team, one thing is clear: our team doesn’t just work at Ethic — they are artists who have shaped, and will continue to shape, what really makes our team special: our principles. 

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Sources and footnotes

Ethic Inc. is a Registered Investment Adviser located in New York, NY. Registration of an investment adviser does not imply any level of skill or training. Information pertaining to Ethic Inc’s registration or to obtain a copy of Ethic Inc.’s current written disclosure statement discussing Ethic Inc.’s business operations, services and fees is available on the SEC’s Investment Adviser Public Information website – www.adviserinfo.sec.gov or from Ethic Inc. upon written request at support@ethicinvesting.com. Information provided herein is for informational purposes only and does not intend to make an offer or solicitation for the sale or purchase of any specific securities, investments, or investment strategies. Any subsequent, direct communication by Ethic Inc. with a prospective client shall be conducted by a representative of Ethic Inc. that is either registered or qualifies for an exemption or exclusion from registration in the state where a prospective client resides. Information contained herein may be carefully compiled from third-party sources that Ethic Inc. believes to be reliable, but Ethic Inc. cannot guarantee the accuracy of any third-party information.

Ethic Inc. does not render any legal, accounting, or tax advice. Ethic Inc. recommends all investors seek out the services of competent professionals in any of the aforementioned areas. Ethic Inc. cannot provide any assurances that any investment strategies, simulations, etc. will perform as described in our materials. ALL INVESTMENTS INVOLVE RISK, ARE NOT GUARANTEED, AND MAY LOSE VALUE. BE SURE TO FIRST CONSULT WITH A QUALIFIED FINANCIAL ADVISER AND/OR TAX PROFESSIONAL BEFORE IMPLEMENTING ANY STRATEGY.

Contributors

Doug Scott was raised in Australia by two forward-thinking social and environmental activists. Doug co-created Ethic to help solve many of the largest issues facing humanity. He was listed on the Forbes 30 Under 30, and previously worked in Investment Banking at Deutsche Bank.

Melissa Banigan is a content strategist with over 15 years of communications experience working with global companies and nonprofits. Also a journalist and author, her work appears in The Washington Post, CNN, the BBC, NPR, and the Independent, among other publications, and she's written three books for youth.

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