These days, we expect people to change jobs fairly frequently. When someone has been with a company for a decade, we’re surprised. When they’ve been there almost 25 years and seen the organization grow from a dozen to around 350 staff, we really sit up and take notice.
Someone who’s had that kind of longevity is Meredith Bronk, CEO and President of Open Systems Technologies, Inc. (OST). She recently appeared on The BragWorthy Culture podcast and shared the sort of deep insights that come from working at and leading one company for such a long time. In this article, we want to share a few of those insights with you.
Live Your Values First
While more and more companies starting up these days are putting together some kind of statement of values at the outset, that’s not been the case for most companies over the years. Meredith told us it was 15 years into the growth of OST when they took the time to write down their company values, which are:
- Honor (our employees and families)
- Delight (our clients)
- Serve (with humility)
- Embrace (entrepreneurship and innovation)
- Learn (through curiosity and empathy)
The first four were the original values and, in a meta moment, the fifth was added when an acquisition was made of a human-centered design firm. It made sense for the technology company bringing in the design firm to embrace curious and empathic learning, not just in temporary actions but in permanent words.
Keep Your Values in Front of You (Literally)
Meredith is not a tech person but she’s in charge of a tech company, so she sees a big part of her job as ensuring that people have the place to do their best work every single day. Part of creating such an environment is making sure that company values are expressed, preached, and lived, not just in words but in actions.
She keeps on her desk what OST calls a “blue card,” which has the company’s values written on it. She loves these values and helped to write them, and she still enjoys being reminded of them frequently.
This is also part of the onboarding process. New team members are asked to raise their right hands and agree that they accept these values and are committed to living them personally and encouraging them in others.
Don’t Allow One Value to Supercede Another
At OST, all the values are equally important, so it’s important not to let one value “argue” against another. When faced with seemingly conflicting company values in a given situation, look deeper or ask for help to see how you might resolve it.
You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned
We all remember Master Yoda’s advice to Luke to “unlearn” bad habits. Meredith thinks this applies to team members who come in with habits or practices that may have been in line with their previous company but are problematic at OST.
During OST’s onboarding process, the question is posed: “What do I have to unlearn in order to align myself with these values?”
But Your Voice Matters, Too
But Meredith doesn’t see this as one-way communication, in which new team members are told this and asked to abide by that. She welcomes feedback:
- If team members see ways that the company or other team members are not living values
- If team members see ways that the company could improve or do things better
She believes that people have to feel a sense of belonging, and that can only happen if they are invited to make their own mark on the culture and see that they are part of it, not just subject to it.
Meredith points out that the values have to overcome our own personal reactions. There may indeed be a time when you don’t feel like “serving with humility” but you can’t telegraph that to others through a shrug, an eye roll, or that gasp of exasperation, because then your personal problem becomes everyone else’s.
If you don’t let long-term values override your short-term feelings, you miss the opportunity to grow personally and professionally.
Be Understanding of Fellow Humans
If that eye roll happens or that gasp of exasperation slips out, Meredith says we should be understanding to our fellow humans.
We all make mistakes, and enforcing and living company values can’t be done with a metric of “zero tolerance” for failure. Have compassion for someone’s bad day, react empathetically, but also gently remind them not to make their bad day everyone else’s, too.
Don’t Permit Weaponization of Values
While it’s important to be compassionate when someone’s having a bad day, it’s also important to call them out on bad behavior. Meredith’s example was, “Someone might say, oh, I was just being entrepreneurial in that situation,” and her response would be, “No, you were just being a jerk.”
Don’t allow someone to conflate bad behavior with company values. This weaponization is a slippery slope that can poison interactions (and feedback).
Values Stay the Same, But Culture Must Adapt
When values are consistent, they provide a stabilizing force for the company to grow and thrive. But company culture can’t be consistent. It grows and adapts and evolves, taking on the personality, skills, and challenges of every team member.
Meredith pointed out the strength of OST’s consistent values during the pandemic. It allowed them to use a frame to encounter a new situation and adapt accordingly.
Ask for Input and Feedback
Meredith used to do a new-employee luncheon once a quarter (it’s in a different format now after the move to hybrid and remote) during which she asked two questions:
- Have you seen us live our values?
- Have you seen us not live our values?
The answer to the second question ties into what was mentioned above: being understanding of fellow humans. Was this someone not living values or was this someone having a bad day? How can you tell the difference? That conversation helps reinforce the importance of team members’ feedback and how important company values are.
Check Out the Full Episode
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