This blog was written by Jeb Keiper, CEO of Nimbus Therapeutics LLC, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC.
Like many middle-aged weekend warriors, I’ve been recently sidelined by injury simply through doing what I’ve regularly done: run. Injury stopped me from running last fall and I’ve since seen orthopods and running experts galore. But it’s been the physical therapists who’ve really laid the hammer home: “Jeb, you need to work on your core.” To quote (in what must be a first for the LifeSciVC blog) Shape magazine, “Your core is your entire support system… Core strength is crucial in every movement you do.”
This is similar to the exercise of creating and living by core values for a company — critical support for all key decisions. While I was adjusting to a new routine of PT recovery leg lifts and crunches, our company, Nimbus Therapeutics, was undergoing a major core focus at the same time — and I think the parallel is instructive. Building a company’s core values is a lot of work, and if you are not committed to truly forming new habits, it may backfire and actually cause more harm than good, like sit-ups with incorrect form. So, with that, I wanted to share a few pointers on the way we’ve approached the Core Values Workout — better grab your gym towel.
What’s for Breakfast?
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” as the saying goes: attention to culture is critical for any leader. Much sage advice runs throughout other blogs; I especially like the takes by Bill Marshall, Jeff Hatfield, and Bruce Booth. However, as a leader, talking about “culture” at a company is too often an entrée to a group navel-gazing activity. As the late, great Clayton Christensen described in various tomes on leadership, leaders need to set vision and purpose, coupled with a strong set of clear “core values.” If the vision, mission, and purpose cover the “what and why”, core values cover the “how.” Setting this groundwork is critical for any leader, so when difficult decisions arise, as in the case of separating a team member, a leader is seen as taking such decisions within the framework of shared corporate core values inherent in the culture.
Everyone has values they live by, and when difficult choices and decisions come our way — for instance, “Should I move coasts for that new job?” — everyone calls upon their own internal values in making the decision. In similar circumstances, different people may make vastly different decisions based on their values. In a company, which is a collection of people, conflicting views on the way a key decision was made often go back to individual personal differences in what people value most. For example, someone who values loyalty above all else may think separating an underperforming, yet pleasant, colleague a travesty; just as someone who values productive output might feel the opposite. A company’s core values are an attempt at creating a common language to define and refine a collective understanding of how difficult decisions are made. The closer the match of a company’s core values to the core values of an individual, the better. There are a number of great blogs that talk about the process of articulating core values in a biotech context (Tariq Kassum, Deanna Petersen, Mark Manfredi & Maude Tessier), and I’d like to build on those through sharing our experience putting those core values into practice — a.k.a., what your new core workout routine looks like.
A Journey of Discovery
Core values are discovered, not defined. Core values are not aspirational, they are not what you wish yourself or your company to be, but rather they are what you are (very Zen). There is a real risk to your credibility if some marketing shmear is applied to a list of ideals that get plastered on posters in the office. If having a poster with a list of phrases is the goal, you are better off not going on this journey at all, for the risk of hypocrisy will undercut any potential gains — the core values will be hollow, disconnected from how “decisions are actually made.” The emperor(s) will have no clothes. Instead, commit to the core workout: this will likely take months simply to discover your core values. Further, you may discover something you were not keen on finding; as a leader you need to be open to hearing things that may be revealing and not in sync with your own values. Company core values are those that your culture shares, and while certainly influenced more by leadership, they may not be the exact personal values of the boss.
The Martian Core Workout
So how do you discover a company’s core values? A mission from Mars can help. To get things started you might consider forming a small but diverse group of employees with this directive: You’re a group of Martians who just landed on Earth and were sent to study this company, to learn how and why it makes decisions. This framing makes clear that core values are meant to be more anthropological than aspirational. Another method is to have everyone share their personal values, what they come back to when they face tough decisions, and put them up for discussion and debate, then have teams vote or rank what they think are core to the company. We followed the latter path at Nimbus, and it yielded rich discussion in successive rounds of engagement, ultimately with every employee.
Having spent the better part of nine months on this journey with my colleagues at Nimbus, there was one memorable group session where our team ranked which of many possible values were what they see at Nimbus. One suggested value was “have fun”, and it received less than 1% of all votes. Nimbi did not see ‘fun’ as being a core value and I was gutted (what other company has the intensive bowling tournaments, Halloween extravaganza’s, off-sites, and a mascot with its own Instagram page (@nimboose for those interested). Though I understood that we are tons of fun and enjoy our time with each other in the office, the Nimbus team wanted to elevate our core values to those that define “how” we achieve our goals and strive towards our mission to deliver breakthroughs for patients.
Are You Ready for the Core Workout?
It took almost ten years before we at Nimbus conducted the process of discovering our core values. One need not wait that long, however I would caution against feeling a need to go into the workout right at company startup. In my experience, at least a year, maybe two, with enough decisions under the belt (good and bad) is probably a decent amount of time before beginning the core values workout. Companies need some level of scale for this exercise to work: A company of five people doesn’t need to define core values, they just need to know each other well. Companies with upwards of 30 people, where lots of decisions are being made all the time, and not always with the same small group of executives, need a common framework. Nimbus has purposefully grown slowly — we were not even at 20 people after six years of operations — but we have grown since, and therefore our core values exercise has felt both necessary and newly relevant. Fast growth companies (10 coming out of stealth, 40+ by year-end) might choose to err on the earlier side for a core values exercise.
Another key element in any workout, touched on briefly in other blogs, is to have the right trainer or coach at your side. This could be a professional consultant who has successfully gone through this exercise before, or a talented HR lead who understands and is committed to helping the organization with core values (a huge thank you to Kathy Kemperman, our head of HR, who guided us on this path). Make no mistake though, you need to show-up and do the workout, especially the CEO and senior leadership team, your coach cannot do this alone.
Fear the Core Values Poster!?
Despite my admonitions above about a list of management phrases on a poster, at some point in the process you will come up with an articulation of core values. Ours (here) took nine months to finalize, and our first draft was frankly too verbose. Our team spent time debating with one another the meaning and definition of every word, ultimately refining to truly get to shared meaning. When we shared these online, a commenter on social media fretted that “everyone’s values look the same, vanilla”, so why do it? It is not all about the words on the page!! While the words matter, the process (the workout) matters far more: the many hours of rich dialogue and forged collective understanding the team gains through this core values workout is what builds company strength.
Getting to an articulation of core values is just the end of the beginning — from there you need to wrestle with them on all tough decisions. You’ll know you’ve reached the “storming phase” around your core values the first time a contentious decision seems to split the values. We go to these values for tough decisions, but values alone may provide contradictory choices for a decision: many tough decisions in your company will feel like they can split on core values. That will happen. That is okay if leaders take the time to talk through decisions, rationale, and legitimately come back to how they are viewing core values and the inherent trade-offs made within them. During those moments of conflicting values, the other parts of Christensen’s leadership framework, namely purpose and mission, become the needed tiebreakers to help determine what is best for the company.
Keep to a Daily Core Values Workout
Just as the good work of physical therapy can fade if the exercises do not become routine, and thereby expose someone to a repeat injury, so can a corporate core values exercise be worthless if the core values themselves are not put into regular use. Remember, these are common corporate core values, not your (or anyone else’s) own, but rather a deliberate synthesis, so you need to get used to them, to “wrestle with them,” and use them regularly when talking about how decisions get made. Embed them into the fabric of the organization, for example, performance reviews which focus on both “the what” and “the how”; assess the latter in terms of company core values. Extend core values into the hiring process: Put them on your website (many good candidates ask about them) and interview by them, have each dimension assessed, and it will do remarkably better than any single individual’s personal assessment of someone’s fit.
You Don’t Achieve What You Don’t Track
Finally, like any good coach, keep the equivalent of a workout log. As a runner, I’ve loved Strava to log what I’ve done, share with others, and keep me both honest and motivated on performance. Do the same with core values: Check in regularly both for individuals and the collective. Take a barometer and confront issues where you are not adhering to core values. This is the hard work, the exercise discipline, of getting core values right. Over time though, this becomes routine, and you are far healthier for it. So, see you on the road running, and in the gym working your core. Good luck.
Many thanks to the many previous pundits on this subject, and to those whom we shared a beverage discussing this topic; the wonderful editorial skill of Lisa Raffensperger at Ten Bridge Communications; and to my colleagues at Nimbus, especially Kathy Kemperman, for their thoughtful contributions to this blog.