The Value of Values
Wherever you work in the business world, identifying the values of your organization brings the benefit of a strong and healthy company culture and empowered employees. However, your values will only bring value if they spring from true beliefs and convictions, and if you have the courage to let them serve as your organization’s behavioral compass.
I work with brands, marketing and communications at a small, Norwegian investment company called Norselab, where we co-found and build meaningful technology companies from scratch.
A lot of things have changed at Norselab this past year. Going from a quintet of entrepreneurs and investors, our team has more than doubled to include a wider range of backgrounds and personalities. We are a group of innately value-driven people, and we are aware that defining the values that unite us was crucial: it’s a way to protect our DNA and make sure we keep our bearings even as we expand our team and activities.
Over the last, few months our investment team has spent a lot of time being introspective. We work towards the vision “Thriving business, happy people, healthy planet”, which is based on the fundamental belief that there is no conflict between business, people and planet. In other words, balance is what we strive for.
On our way there, it’s important that we stay true to our beliefs and values. Even though we are still a small team, we need to make sure everyone understands them and how they influence our choices. We have therefore recently articulated the values that permeate everything that we do, and I’m thrilled to finally being able to share them with you in this article. But before jumping at it, let’s take a minute to understand why company values are so important.
What are values, anyway?
Values are not something you invent. Well, you can, but I would not recommend it. Creating values just for the sake of what looks good on paper does not in any way help your business. On the contrary, you may come across as superficial and unauthentic, and your team would be puzzled to see values on your website that do not correspond with how the company really works.
I cannot say it often enough: values are not about what you think you should be. It is not cherry-picking preset values from famous brands or successful competitors.
Your values encapsulate who you are. They define you and direct how you think and act. Values are a behavioral compass for your organization, a set of beliefs that gives flavour and color to your decision-making.
Values are cornerstones of company culture and strategy exactly for this reason. As the brand and communications specialist at Norselab, an important part of my work is to make sure that all new companies in our portfolio define company values they can stand by. The fact that we choose to work both on values and the broader brand framework very early on, is no accident.
Many people seem to think that company values are simply “marketing fluff” – something you will add to make yourself look good once everything else is set – when in fact they are exactly the opposite. Working with early-stage tech founders without brand building experience, I’m often confronted with this misconception. But once we start working on the startup’s identity together, I find great satisfaction in their realization that values serve a greater purpose in building their company culture.
Values are monuments of company culture
The thing about culture, especially in a startup, is that it requires constant attention. In an environment where team growth is exponential, companies are even more vulnerable to cultural change. On a team of 2 or 3, the arrival of any new employee will alter the company culture. Knowing how beneficial a good company culture is for both people and business, it’s not an option to leave this to chance.
Company culture is therefore something we are particularly attached to at Norselab. We have our own People Philosophy dedicated to promoting healthy company cultures in our startups. And we even have a designated “Minister of Culture” who provides support to founders on cultural issues.
Company values are super-efficient tools to keep your company culture on course. As a matter of fact, shared values are also a prerequisite for high performance on diverse teams.
Everything is intertwined. If you haven’t defined your values – or worse – if your values are only for show, how will you make sure that you recruit people that are aligned with the deeper values that unites your team and gives your company an edge?
Values create consistency
Well-defined company values echo the vision of the company; the long-term direction for your business. They express the kind of behavior that you believe is crucial to achieving your vision. Values should permeate every employee, every strategic discussion. When confronted with a tough decision, any employee should be able to lean on the company values to understand which path to choose.
In short, defining values creates consistency and predictability across your organization. Working out of a common framework, everyone is empowered to make the right decisions for the company, and to understand how others make their decisions. It’s good for your strategy, and on top of that, it’s good for your employee's satisfaction and feeling of belonging.
Why you should stress-test your values
If you work out your values in the right way, they can therefore be a powerful driver for your company. However, stress-testing values is always a good idea. This means that we put them to the test on both everyday decisions and more difficult strategic or ethical decisions. The idea is to evaluate whether our values would hold up in a real-world setting, or whether they are just “lipstick on a pig”.
Here are a few questions we asked ourselves at Norselab when we worked on defining our values:
- In a recruitment process, how would these values affect which candidate we end up hiring?
- When investing in new startups, can these values be directional for our choices? Will they help us create a credible and truthful perimeter for our investments?
- When confronted with tough, strategic decisions, are we willing to stick with these values, or are they just window dressing?
- If the financial upside of a deal was big enough, would we allow for an ad-hoc decision that goes against our values?
After some heated discussions, a lot of hard thinking – both collectively and individually – and a lot of coffee, we landed on the following values for Norselab.
They have been designed to form the fundament of every decision we make at Norselab – small or big. We stand by these values in everything we do.
#1 We commit to people and planet.
We are entirely dedicated to building companies that do good both for our planet and for the people living on it.
Sustainability is without doubt an overused word. As a matter of fact, it’s been used and misused so much that we barely know how to separate the blah blah from the real thing. And what is the real thing, anyway?
A couple of months back, I was at a conference where some interesting sustainability insights were presented by the analysis and consulting agency Zynk. Their data showed, among other things, that “sustainability” is strongly linked to environmental concerns in our neighboring country, Sweden, while in Norway, people think more about sustainability in economic and societal terms. It all comes back to the UN sustainable development goals. They encompass both these interpretations, and even go beyond this to include human rights, poverty, peace issues and more.
At Norselab, we prefer a more straightforward way of expressing our engagement. We all felt that “sustainability” was important to us, but we also had the impression that it lacked concreteness. However, we could all agree that we want to dedicate Norselab to creating and supporting businesses that do good for people and planet. In addition to being holistic and recognizing that everything is interconnected, “people and planet” is easy to understand and relate to, so we stuck with that.
Stating this value allows us to be uncompromising when we select cases to work on: if they do not benefit people and planet, we rule them out before even looking at the numbers.
#2 We are impact native
We build companies that are fundamentally good; companies whose core business ideas are destined to create net positive impact.
Every investment we make has a potential impact, small or big, positive or negative. It’s up to us to decide what kind of impact we want to achieve. For us Norselab’ers, the unanimous choice is to work for net positive impact. When we link this to our previous value, committing to people and planet, I think you get a pretty good idea about which business we are in.
In real life, how can we be “impact native”? To us, this means that we’re not happy with just scratching the surface. Companies that only generate incremental impact, or that focus on positive impact solely through operations, do not satisfy us.
We seek out companies that embed positive impact into their business models. In practice, this means that, for every sale the company makes, the more positive impact they produce. The more successful the company is, the better it is for people and planet. It’s win-win.
Take our startup Ivaldi. They are revolutionizing the maritime value chain by digitizing spare parts for ships and enabling 3D printing of these spare parts when and where we need them. Basically, it’s spare parts as a service. For every spare part produced, you can subtract the environmental cost of a storage location for that spare part (building and maintaining a storage facility) and of transportation (express shipping of a spare part from another location, often on the other side of the globe). It also means that ships get repaired more quickly, enabling the shipping industry to provide the same service with fewer ships since they get back into service sooner.
The more subscribers Ivaldi gets, the bigger the environmental savings. Isn’t that a satisfying idea? To us, it’s an extremely inspiring model, that could easily be transposed into other industries.
#3 We spread enthusiasm
We don't just talk about global challenges. We act on them and we spread enthusiasm by proving that we can drive meaningful change.
Being optimistic and joyful while we have a go at our vision is just so much more rewarding than sticking to the pessimistic world view some people seem to prefer. At Norselab, we choose to be enthusiasts.
Don’t get us wrong: we know that the state of the planet is serious. And we are utterly serious about that. But we believe that the right way to bring enthusiasm is by showing that change is possible – that there are solutions – and to inspire others to join our quest for change.
Those who are acquainted with our portfolio know that we build technology companies, preferably within traditional industries. Why is that? Simply because we believe that industrial technology in particular offers opportunities to make radical, positive change, really fast.
A proptech company we are building right now, Varig, provides a great example. They work within the property- and construction industry, also known as “the 40 percent industry” because it uses about 40 percent of the world’s resources – and is responsible for almost 40 percent of global emissions. Sounds despairing? Not to us! Knowing that it’s one of the world’s least digitized industries, it’s exactly the kind of business we like to take an enthusiastic punch at!
Through Varig, we are building digital solutions that will enable maintenance and rehabilitation of existing buildings at a minimal environmental cost – and saving the huge environmental impact of demolishing and rebuilding. Through Varig, we also aim to empower people to impact the environmental cost of the buildings they rent or use. Mostly, people don’t really know or understand which actions create the greatest environmental benefit, and Varig will be there to guide them towards the best decisions.
How’s that for enthusiasm?
#4 We embody grit
When we believe in an idea, we go beyond the surface - we dig both deep and wide. When we know it's worthwhile, we deploy all our grit and smarts to see it grow and thrive.
This is our fourth and last value, but an equally crucial one in our mix. If there is one quality we look for both in our team and in all the people we surround ourselves with, it’s grit. Grit is about courage, resolve and determination when faced with difficulty. It’s about passion and perseverance. True grit is hard to come around, but we know how to spot it.
In the startup world, there is nothing like grit to increase your chances of making it. You need people to keep going when the going gets tough. You need people who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. People who always think they can do more and better. Grit may even be the single most important thing to predict whether people will be successful.
Grit is a prime quality we value not only when hiring into our startups, but also expect of our own team. Whenever they go through a rough patch, the Norselab team steps up and puts all hands on deck. We stick with our choices and do what must be done to make things work. To us, grit is the universal attitude that we strive to embody, and that we always look out for.
Do you feel inspired?
Value-driven consumer choices is a well-documented phenomenon in branding. It’s no different in business. We choose to surround ourselves with people and brands who share our values and world view. People notice when you say what you are and are what you say. Truthful values, values you live by, provides a competitive advantage in every aspect of your business.
At Norselab, we see this every day. Founders who bring us their ideas, talents who seek to work in our ecosystem and investors who entrust us to invest their money come to us because we have our own, distinctive values and approach to building companies.
Although defining your values can be really hard work – especially if you have a bigger team where values have not been articulated before – they can be powerful cultural and strategic tools once you’ve nailed them. Hopefully I’ve made a case for why this should be a priority in your organization too, and maybe I’ve succeeded in conveying what’s special about the way we see the world at Norselab.
I hope you will feel as inspired by these values as we are. And if you do, make sure to reach out for a sound dose of enthusiasm and grit for impact-native companies that do good for people and planet. Maybe we can do something together to build new, meaningful companies?