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Choosing personal pillars and values (and how this helps a team)

KLR pillars whisky walking coffee faith potter

Not long after I set up PF, I identified what I saw as the core foundational “pillars” of the company. Things I personally stood for and what I wanted the agency to stand for, too.

Those are creativity, integrity, generosity, and rest. (For a while there was one called “service”, but I decided that was less of a pillar and more of a fact of the business we’re in, and changed it to creativity.)

Originally, the pillars were sort of like values. What we believed in and how we did things.

The pillars, I realised over time, are more foundational. They have to do with character and even personality, in a sense, and they define us. People who know PF and those who work there will know they’re people of creativity, integrity, generosity, and rest.

But as we continued to build the team, and we had discussions about how to deal with hard things or daily life, I realised the concept of ‘integrity’ wasn’t quite enough to help define how we respond. How we answered emails and chose systems and listened to clients and each other. How we shared what was going on in our lives and how we ran or contributed to team meetings.

Little stuff. Life stuff. Specific stuff.

If a client is unhappy or frustrated and you need to reply to them, terms like ‘integrity’ and ‘generosity’ feel kind of vague at that point. Is it integrity to explain every little detail? Is that what’s needed? What if there’s something they needed to do, too? Do we explain that or let it go in the desire to be generous?

So we identified six values the company stands for. And the process revealed even to us that the values were more about decision making. Choosing between. Evaluating specifics.

It took some time – first we came up with words, then we discussed those words, then I documented what I understood those to mean and we discussed those meanings and changed them. We turned them into phrases. We had a whole session in a team retreat in which we hashed out whether this word was better than that word, and how helpful these values actually would be in daily life (including daily work life).

At one point in the retreat we had a break, and I went for a walk and wandered into a pound shop (like a dollar store, for those of you elsewhere). Cheap stuff. Rubbish, really, and it’s all a pound each. And I had the idea to grab something which reflected each value. A guitar for creativity. A mask to show the opposite of transparency. A sombrero for… quite frankly I’ve forgotten now. We got REAL creative in our attempts to explain how these fun items expressed our six values. A lot of laughter ensued.

Here are the six values as we have them now (along with a corresponding sentence to define what we mean by that):

  • Show transparency: We share the right things at the right time to build relationship.
  • Have an opinion: We know what we think, and are able to explain why.
  • Stay positive: We look for the good, and believe there’s always a blessing.
  • Take responsibility: We take ownership, and we strive to be better.
  • Be gracious: We are here to help, and will be patient and generous.
  • Collaborate: We come to solutions together, as a team

The values have become so much a part of the fabric of PF that we use them all the time in conversation. “Hey, thanks for your transparency in that call yesterday.” – “Great job on staying positive! That was tough!” – “Ah, yea that’s not how the system was meant to work – I take responsibility for not updating it.”

Every other week in our Tuesday team meets, we start with Values Recognitions.

We choose someone from the team (or a client, or someone else!) and recognise them for living out a PF pillar or value – or a combination of them. It’s not uncommon for someone to say “I’d like to recognise this person for #creativitypillar and #collaborationvalue for that project we worked on last week. I really appreciated….” and they give some more detail.

It makes them real.

So, that’s the company pillars and values. I’m getting to the personal ones now, I promise!!

As we were discussing these and sketching them out and putting them on our website, we had one of those joking moments which led us to a whole new creative idea.

I genuinely don’t remember where it came from or how we got to this, but it ended up with (I think) Camilla saying something like “well, coffee is like a personal pillar for you”, and me saying “that would be fun, if we all had our own personal pillars as well as the company ones”.

Then I remember Camilla asking what mine would be, and I said “oh I don’t know, off the top of my head, whisky, walking, coffee, Harry Potter, and Jesus.” 

Then we started laughing so much that on that list, Jesus ended up being mentioned last (“He’s not the least important, I promise!! There’s no particular order!!”) so I shared it with the team so they could enjoy the joke. I tried to explain that Jesus didn’t mind because technically He MADE everything including the rest of the list but by then we were all laughing so much we had moved on to what everyone else’s pillars would be.

And so we made it an exercise for everyone on the team.

The way we explained it was, what are the five things which sort of…describe you. 

They don’t define you as such: they’re not character traits or belief systems necessarily, although that could be in there; it’s more the kind of things which you love, and bring you comfort and inspiration. The key is, anyone who really knows you could probably rattle these things off, too.

It’s the kind of list which would apply if you went on holiday, or took a day off work or had a rest. When I took three weeks off a few months ago, I realised partway through that I had done lots of walking, drank coffee (of course), watched Harry Potter films, read some new spiritual books and listened to podcasts and had prayer times, and tried and purchased new whisky. They’re my five. (I chose well.)

Now, whenever a new team member starts, we ask them to identify their pillars. Sometimes it becomes a matter of team discussion if they’re deciding between two. “Is it #foodpillar or #pastapillar? And we say well, probably pasta, because it’s more specific, and the idea is that someone could literally buy you gifts from this list or have a topic of conversation on something you agree or disagree about.

But there aren’t any hard and fast rules, either. At least one team member has #foodpillar because they’re like “literally any kind of food: I just love food”. Or #familypillar or #healthpillar.

Sometimes they’re VERY specific. Kier has #tatepillar, which is the name of his (adorable) dog. You may remember Tate from the skanky blanket story.

I think one of my favourites ever is Beccy’s #leaveitwithmepillar. She has this phrase “Leave it with me” which is music to the ears of any PF team member or client or anyone, because once you’ve left it with Beccy, it’s as good as done. And done well, on time, and probably better than you imagined and with more detail. When she was coming up with it, she said “Well I was thinking leaveitwithme but that’s too long”, and we all said “not at all! There’s no rules! Go for it – because it definitely defines you!”

While we were building this process, I was reading Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead. If you are a leader of people, a business owner, or you want to be this person, this book is full of gooooood stuff. I was really moved by it. Some of it changed me, some i’m still mulling over – and some I’ve started implementing in our company.

One was the concept of your two core values. That’s what Brene calls them. She says “a value is a way of being or believing that we hold most important”.

“Living into our values means that we do more than profess our values, we practice them. We walk our talk – we are clear about what we believe and hold important, and we take care that our intentions, words, thoughts, and behaviours align with those beliefs.” – Brene Brown

And she gives an exercise, with a list of values, and encourages you to identify your two CORE values. The ones you hold most important.

dare to lead values exercise

This is an extremely hard exercise. There are about 150 of them. And she says whenever someone does this, they want to choose 10 or 15, but you can’t. Well you can, but you have to keep whittling. Because if ‘everything’ is a driver, then nothing is. If you have a big decision to make, you can remember your two core values and hark back to them quickly. You can’t remember 15 easily, and all it will do is confuse you further.

What helped me the most is when she explained that there are always ones which are at the root. One is fueled by the other. 

For example, I marked Authenticity, and also marked Honesty.

There are similarities. I want to be someone who is my real authentic self. I also want to be honest, and tell the truth, and the two do go together. But when push comes to shove, honesty means choosing how and when to share my authentic self. Honesty doesn’t mean telling everybody everything (like a small child with no filter). It includes authenticity – but on reflection I decided honesty was a better word, because I hate lies.

I hate being on the receiving end of lies, and I hate anything which could seem like a lie coming from me. It’s why i rather awkwardly tell people the whole truth….and what I describe as the truth, the whole truth, and a little bit more of the truth you probably didn’t need to know, sometimes. I feel like it would be a lie to hold that little piece of information back.

It usually isn’t, at all. But it’s a weird wrestling thing I’ve got going on and it’s also been core to every major decision I’ve ever made in life. As well as my other core value, which is Freedom.

In a similar way, I marked both ‘independence’, and ‘freedom’, but i felt Freedom described it better.

For me it brings up feelings of driving along a winding road with the windows down and the music playing. Or walking for hours along a clifftop on a remote Scottish island. Or living on my own. Or leaving a toxic situation or relationship. Or saying no to false guilt. I am an independent person, already: but freedom is a decision maker. And a default. And something I go a little crazy without.

One of the things I shared with the team when asking them to choose their core values was to ask a few questions:

  • Of these values I’ve identified, which ones are the most important when I’m making one of the biggest decisions of my life? (Look back at your life and how you got to your decision – what factors influenced that?)
  • What do I feel really frustrated if it’s missing from my life or from the life of others I care about?
  • What does characterise me and my closest friends?
  • When there’s someone I don’t like or find difficult to love, what qualities are they without, or not living up to?
  • What do I hate? And what is the opposite of that?

It took me a few weeks to pick my two values. I thought about it. I went back to the book. I mulled it over while on my walks (or while drinking coffee, or whisky). I thought about what had been hard for me in lockdown, and I considered big decisions I’d made in life. I talked with friends and got their perspective.

Choosing personal pillars and values has become an exercise which is just done by new team members, as part of the onboarding process. I recorded a video explaining all these things, and they submit their draft pillars, and we give a little input if they need it.

Then once those are confirmed, our graphic designers create their own designed pillar icons. And each person gets their own custom PF mug, with their own personal pillars and values on it. As a regular reminder of what they stand for, and who they are, and that we hear that and see that and respect it.

We also put the pillars on each person’s profile on the PF website. You can see each of them here. 

We still all subscribe to the PF pillars and values; but we also each have our own. Because each person is different, and we’re a team of unique people. And that’s worth recognising.

Now, I’m sort of hoping you won’t notice that the definition of pillars and values got a little muddled between the company and personal. A client asked what the difference was. “Why does PF have both pillars AND values?”

And then we got thinking about why the PF pillars are sort of character foundations, while the values are day to day living….but the personal pillars and values are the other way round? We started discussing it in Slack, and quite honestly i’m not sure of the answer.

It could be because we set the PF pillars & values first, and the “personal pillars” was more of a joke, without intentional thought behind the name.

It could be because Brene used the word ‘values’ for the two core beliefs, and it was easier to use that terminology.

It could be because, as one of the team put it, “our pillars are kinda the way we live out or action our values. Like we live out being creative and generous by collaborating and having an opinion. I live out being compassionate by reading books (that provide other perspectives) and I find joy by biking and going to concerts.”

Or it could be that it doesn’t matter, massively, because you get the point. People love the concept of “personal pillars”, and I get asked about them a lot. (Hence writing this Note!) I have friends who hear about them and start having family discussions at home about what their personal pillars would be.

It’s a good exercise to do, no matter who you are or where you work (or don’t). It’s a good exercise in knowing yourself and sharing that with the world – and reminding yourself, every day, to live up to those.

Here’s a quick summary of all the resources which will help you with this:

Brene Brown Dare to Lead exercise: Values list

PF team onboarding video: How to choose your pillars & values

View each of the PF team’s pillars

 

What would your personal pillars be?

 

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