The Power of Swashbuckle: How Shortlist Decided What’s Important
By Paul Breloff, Simon Desjardins, Matt Schnuck (Shortlist Co-Founders)
At Shortlist, we pride ourselves on being a values-driven company and we love working with values-driven employers. To that end, we’re hosting (with our friends at Spire) what we expect to be a really cool breakfast gathering next Thursday June 8 in Nairobi — Defining and Living Your Company Culture. Check it out.
This event has caused us to reflect on our own values, where they came from and why they are important to us. The Shortlist values are:
Own it: Own yourself and your work. Don’t wait; see the needful and do it. Generate discipline. Drive for results.
Act with intention: Do the work to get clear. Buck convention. Big goals start with small steps; step with purpose.
Find the adventure: Changing the world should be fun. Inject spirit into the everyday. Be bold. Dream loud. Swashbuckle.
Be a whole person: We’re more than our work. Seek balance and health. Learn from differences. Unlock your potential.
(Side note: every time we write these, we kind of get the chills. We love our values.)
So where did these come from and what do they mean to us?
We followed a very deliberate process, and engaged in a series of open-ended brainstorms among our senior team, with the prompt, “What is important to us and what kind of company do we want to be?” Needless to say, a lot came up. We attempted, as a group, to give some form to the mush, organizing different ideas into thematic buckets and teasing out which ideas felt like personal preferences and which ideas felt core and embodied our aspirations for a durable cultural foundation.
At their best, company values are inspirational but must also be “real,” not simply aspirational. Company values should already exist within the team, and should be discovered more than invented. Values help us answer “Who are you at your best?,” not “Who do you want to be like when you grow up?” We believe our growing team would see right through any value we couldn’t embody (or at least try to) in real life on a day to day basis.
We co-founders believe that values must bubble up from the team, but ultimately be defined, lived, and breathed by our leadership, whose actions and decisions are often most visible and set the tone for the whole organization. As such, we did not try to settle on values statements through a polite process of lowest-common denominator appeasement among a broad leadership group. Instead, we took all the feedback away to come up with something opinionated on our own. Specifically, we headed off for a head-clearing weekend perched on a cliff above the ocean in Varkala, Kerala. (It was less fancy than it may seem, but not less awesome.)
While there, the three of us reflected on what’s important to us as individuals, what we heard from the team, and what we wanted to champion and enshrine for the future. We crafted ideas and words through a few rounds of solo journaling followed by group discussion, openly discussing what we liked and didn’t like about each other’s ideas.
We strove for boldness in articulation, and took blandness as the enemy. With each value, we framed it in a way that we could actually imagine a company with an opposing point of view. We’ve all been at companies with conventional values like “respect” and “integrity” — but really, who would ever not value those things?
For example, with “Own it,” we were responding to the fact that we did not want to foster a culture of obedience, hierarchy and blind rules-following. We wanted anyone on our team to feel empowered to see an opportunity and go for it. As leaders, we try hard to own our words, our actions, our personal and professional development. This also extends to apologizing and trying to improve when we screw up.
With “Act with intention,” we were responding in part to the Facebook ethos to “move fast and break things” — we would rather build a company that is thoughtful and intentional about the products we build, the employer/candidate relationships we cultivate, and the way we treat each other, even if there are occasional speed sacrifices.
With “Be a whole person,” we were responding to the intense, work-obsessed culture at SpaceX described by Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk biography (which all three of us happened to read that same weekend in Kerala), and other unhealthy work styles that can sometimes consume hardworking, disciplined individuals. Instead, we want to build a culture that acknowledges differences, encourages employees to find physical health and spiritual balance, and respects family and personal lives. We encourage team members to treat exercise classes as valid appointments on their calendars, to take a daily walk to clear their heads, or to work from home occasionally, believing these to be happier, healthier, and more productive ways to work.
We were particularly excited to use the word “swashbuckle” somewhere in these values, which we believe is one of the great yet under-used words in the English language, and rarely seen in its imperative verb form. The word prompted Matt to leave mid-brainstorm at one point and return sporting a new Indiana Jones-style fedora, purchased from a beach vendor, to make that particular “adventure” value real.
Once we returned to the office, we shared these values with the leadership team and then shortly after that with the full team in one of our monthly Town Halls. Our values are displayed as inspirational posters in our Bombay office (yes, the cliché “poster on the wall”) but we believe culture has to exist beyond motivational decorations, and instead define the way we run meetings, tackle new projects, support employers, and interact with each other every day. We also try to make the Shortlist values real and encourage their embodiment by calling people out in Town Hall “high fives” with value references, linking company decisions and priorities back to our values, and generally modeling them and keeping them top of mind across the team.
By no means do we have all the answers, and we continue to make this up as we go along. To that end, we’re eager to learn how other companies have thought about and approached this, and can’t wait to engage with you around this topic on June 8 in Nairobi!