My mother loves birds. She has a plethora of bird feeders and invites the diaspora of creatures to her home. At all hours of the day, there is a different song, chirp, cluck, and coo; vocalizations learned from generations, cultural transmission in the wild. As I was tasked to cultivate our company culture at Instacart, I thought about those birds and the importance of hearing a song, understanding it and knowing how to sing it. Your company culture is similar. It sets you apart, articulates who you are, demonstrates what matters to you and defines how you treat one another. After all, birds of a feather stick together!

The key to creating your culture is articulating the values that you have and creating the right practices around them.

When I began my career at Instacart four years ago, the company consisted of just 15 people working out of a house in the quaint South Park neighborhood of San Francisco. Today, we have 330+ corporate employees and over 10,000 shoppers providing same-day grocery delivery to over 65 million households in the U.S. Over the years, we’ve made some important decisions to build and scale our culture to get us to where we are today. By far, the most important and foundational action was writing our values early and rewriting them after our period of hypergrowth. Why? No matter the company or group of people, we live by values. The key to creating your culture is articulating the values that you have, or aspire to have, and creating the right practices around them. Your company culture is merely these values played out in real life through a series of six steps.

1. Start with your people

The mistake many will make is creating the first set of company values out of thin air. In doing so, you will end up with values that don’t resonate or ring true. It’s not to say that you shouldn’t shoot for the stars, but you have to be grounded in what makes you tick. At Instacart, we are already on our second set of values in just five years. We articulated the first set when we were about 25 people and rewrote them when we were 200. Talk to leadership and people throughout the company. Ask them what they love about working with their peers. Ultimately, it’s the people that drive the culture machine.

2. Think visually

Take the data you gathered from talking to people at your company and organize your thoughts through structured visual thinking sessions. What is visual thinking? It’s whiteboarding! We held a few sessions on each of the concepts we gathered to start drafting new values. We found that if it can’t be drawn, it probably can’t be done.

3. Caucus

That’s right. Hold a meeting where your everyone in your company can review and give feedback on the draft values. Ours weren’t perfect, but we sent them to the firing squad anyway. I was inspired by how Tim Gunn always said, “caucus amongst yourselves” on Project Runway, so we presented them to the company at what we called a “Values Caucus.” We gave them a week to review and provide us with feedback on a two-by-two matrix, including options of “actionable/vague” and “lovin’ it/ meh.”

4. Write

Finally, take all the feedback and create three versions. Work with a smaller group to iterate. Ask yourself the following questions: Are these specific? Applicable? What will they look like around the office? Do people in leadership embody these values? Are they unique to our company? At Instacart, we aimed to bring more clarity to our values (“Do More” could imply staying up until 3 AM). We also made them more unique to Instacart (“Be Humble” and “Humility” are not concepts that mean more to us than any other company). In the end, we had five new company values and wrote “Litmus Tests,” decisively indicative questions that would help guide our employees when they need it most.

5. Integrate

You will arrive at a set of articulated company core values that will define how you act and who you aspire to be. Now the hard part of living and reinforcing them begins – it’s where your company culture comes to life.

To integrate them into everyday life:

  • Ensure company leadership embodies your core values and refers to them often for company decisions and actions.
  • Incorporate your values into your hiring plans. How do you assess culture add for new hires?
  • Socialize your values with new hires on day one.
  • Put them on the wall!
  • Recognize employees for embodying your values.

6. Revisit for growth

There will be moments when you look around and find that your values don’t exactly match who you are, or where you are going. You will know then that it’s time to make some tweaks or go back to the drawing board. It’s not a failure, it’s healthy to change, as there are few things in life that are immutable.

Michelle Suwannukul

About the Author

Michelle Suwannukul