20 August 2011 ~ 4 Comments

Creating Core Values

Have you read Zappos’ Core Values? If you haven’t, then you probably also want to read a lot more about Zappos, one of the “best companies to work for” and a company known for fostering a fabulous culture.

After reading their Tony Hsieh’s book, Delivering Happiness, about creating Zappos and fostering their culture, we passed the book around to many of our management staff at PEPY. Not only did the process they went through and the value they put on culture resonate with us, but a lot of their values did as well. Our communications team has “WOW Idea Sessions” and being humble has become a mantra for some of our teams. We wanted these values to be our own, and through that realized that we already had a lot of great values, we just needed to write them down!

In these last weeks wrapping up my time in Cambodia before I head off to a graduate program, we have been putting a lot of time into strategic planning and we realized that we needed our own documentation of our core values to help act as a guiding tool for our ongoing decision making. I read up on Zappos work as well as on the CultureSync website, a website which seems to be connected with the book Tribal Leadership, and asked some friends who work in HR for their advice.

What resonated with me most through this research was the idea that core values shouldn’t be something etched in stone on the front of a building, as buildings don’t have values (must like they don’t “teach kids”). Instead, PEOPLE have values, and the core values of an organization are only as strong as the core values of those people who make up the team. So rather than carving values into a wall, we asked our staff to identify THEIR core values and then identify the values at PEPY which connected them to this work. Each person did this on their own and then each manager compiled this list of words/phrases into their top 30 and then all of those were compiled and edited down into a list of 50+ concepts which we brought with us to our strategic planning retreat.

There we spent a few hours defining the terms to make sure we all had a shared definition of the concepts and then we spread the words out into different categories and taped the all over the room. We each had 10 stickers which we could use to vote on a specific word or a cluster of words as our top choices for the most important components of PEPY’s core values. We then found which choices got the most votes and allowed a time for people to champion a word which was not included. We argued over whether we should include core values we didn’t feel we yet excelled at exhibiting and decided that we needed to be honest about how we defined them, but if they were indeed things we all valued and were working towards, we should include them.

We then took our list of “top” value words and our team’s wordsmiths put them together into short statements. Like the Zappos values, we wanted ours to be action statements, which not only state what we value, but how we want to live, traits we are looking for in those we hire, and how we plan to evaluate our individual and collective actions. We then reviewed these with the whole PEPY crew of 50+ people at two staff meetings to make sure we made the right word choices and ensure everyone had a feeling of ownership over these ideas. From there, we wrote short paragraphs to outline what that values mean to us and how we interpret the quirky statements we wrote so we can have a shared meaning with all those outside of PEPY who want to learn more about what drives us.

I was editing the paragraphs and thought I would share them. Actually, I added two sections which haven’t been edited much, and those two still need a lot of work (I’ll let you guess which ones they are!). There were still a few words/concepts from our top list which we hadn’t previously found a way to add into our statements and I tried to fit them in.  In otherwords, this is still a rough draft, still needs more buy-in, and I’m putting these up here to:

a) gather thoughts from those of you who know about PEPY and might want to add your two cents

b) share the process we are going through in creating these value statements in case that is of value to anyone else (sorry about the attempt at a word pun, core value editing will do that to you!)

Share your thoughts if you have time!


A DRAFT of PEPY’s Core Values

1) Commit to our unending potential for improvement

We have to improve ourselves in order to improve the world.

We believe that everyday provides new opportunities to learn and the journey to perfect has no finish line. We have found that the best way to grow is to start by identifying areas where we are failing to reach our dreams. We place great emphasis for our team, and our organization as a whole, on being self-critical. We constantly analyze and reflect on our programs, our activities, our collaborations, and our philosophies and work towards better. When we reflect on our journey as an organization, we identify being flexible to adapt to new learning as keys to our growth which often came from making difficult decisions to change how we worked. Investing in the life-long learning of each of our staff and fostering a culture of self-development are the PEPY basics. We know we can ALWAYS be better, and we’re committed to working towards that!

2) Think unreasonably. Dream BIG

“There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other.” -Douglas Everett

At PEPY, “outside the box” thinking is not only encouraged, but expected. We celebrate “WOW ideas”: those that are unusual – unreasonable even – and that have the power to shift our mindset towards new solutions for old problems. We try to foster an environment where people know that it is ok to be off the wall as we want our team to take calculated risks at challenging the conventional, the everyday, the acceptable. We want to push the boundaries of what we can achieve and to do that we need big and powerful dreams that we can work towards.

3) Focus on impact, not inputs.  Invest in people, not things

“If you are planning for one year, grow rice. If you are planning for 20 years grow trees. If you are planning for centuries, grow men.” -Chinese Proverb

When we started PEPY by building a school, we learned something we should have known from the start: Schools don’t teach kids. People do. Through our failures and successes we have realized that when people are our priority we can have the most positive impact through our work. We believe that we can only achieve the changes we want to see in the world if we invest time in people. With expanded capabilities, each of us are better equipped to reach our own dreams and then we can put the “things” in the world to use. When we examine a global problem, it is often easy to think of ways that throwing money or things at the problem can quickly achieve positive changes, but we have seen that things break, money is finite, people have been wired to protect the things they have invested in, and solutions coming from the outside can create dependencies. This doesn’t mean we don’t buy “things” – that would just be silly! But we’ve learned that the most effective use of our funds is in programs that directly educate and train our staff and those living in the communities in which we work. When we do invest in things, it is should be because the systems to use, maintain, and sustain those things are in place. This ensures that our impact will be felt years after our money has been spent.
4) Be strategic in our choices, and thoughtful in our plans

We can’t improve our plan if we don’t have one.

At PEPY we have been known to rush into things. Our team is made up of highly enthusiastic people who cannot wait to get started. We love the passion and energy this creates but have also learned from the problems it can cause. So now, a little older and a little wiser, we prioritize taking time to research, thinking strategically, and planning. We recognize that flexibility is necessary to achieve our goals and that we need to be “searchers” rather than “planners” if we want to find the way to fulfill big dreams. But, as Dwight Eisenhower said, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”

5) Collaborate, both within and beyond

We have a lot to share and even more to learn.

In our “PEPY Writing Guidelines” we were told to avoid clichés, but given our bike riding roots, it seems fitting to break the rule to say this: we don’t want to reinvent the wheel. As much as we would love to do everything, we know we can’t, and we relish working with partners who can bring their skills and experience to help us achieve our mission. Many of the lessons we have learned at PEPY have come from partnering with others and seeking out mentorship and guidance from those with more experience in effecting positive change.

Internally, we recognize the importance of teamwork. We ask each team member to take responsibility for the energy they bring into the room and take ownership of the impact they have not just on our work but also on our team. We embrace the diversity of ideas and experiences we have in our group and encourage debate and discussion. If agreement comes too quickly, we might not be asking enough questions. Our most successful projects have come as a result of open communication between our teams and partner organizations and when we have all felt supported to create our future together.

6) Create and sustain a culture of open feedback

It’s not personal, it’s PEPY.

It’s important that we both give, and receive feedback within PEPY. Self-reflection is emphasized and constructive criticism encouraged. We believe that it is important that feedback is presented as a gift, not fired like a gun! When feedback is presented in a sensitive and constructive way, we should also be open to receiving it in the spirit it is given – which is to help each other learn and improve. The more we do this, the more comfortable it becomes and the quicker we learn. We want to work with team members who seek out feedback because they realize “it’s not personal”, and that only through seeing our weaknesses from the outside are we are able to learn how we can improve ourselves and our impact.

7) Work with, not for

The paths to local goals can be found locally.

We learned this through mistakes: we came in from the outside and thought we could “fix” the problems we saw. Disregarding local leadership and power structures meant that we often prioritized the wrong things and wasted money on some programs which failed due to lack local ownership. We now realize that in order for our work to have the most positive impact is must be developed and championed by those who will continue to work towards these goals long after we leave. A key to making sure the positive impact of our work lasts longer than our programs is to “work with, not for” by ensuring that the communities we work with are partners in development rather than recipients of aid.

8) Do more with less.  Be responsible in our environmental and economic choices.

While our goals are infinite, our resources are not.

We view our stakeholders as not only the communities with which we work but also our donors and our planet. In the same way that we need to ensure that our programs have the most positive impact towards our mission, we also need to make sure that our funding is used honestly and efficiently and that we are minimizing our impact on the planet. From not using air conditioning in our office to, minimizing extraneous expenditures, we work to minimize our waste so that we can most effectively use what we have at our disposal.

9) Be humble in success, transparent in failure and share the lessons we learn

“Life is a long lesson in humility.” – James Matthew Barrie

Being humble is a trait we seek out in others and work to foster in ourselves. The greatest lessons are often born out of failures, and over the years we have seen our share. We work at being transparent about our struggles and sharing them with as much enthusiasm as we promote our achievements in the hopes that others may use these lessons to avoid these mistakes in the future. In the areas where we have had success, we work to spread these models through trainings and sharing resources. We know we have a lot to learn from others, both from what works and what doesn’t, so we’re glad when we can give back through our strengths and our weaknesses.

10) Take the small steps needed to get far. It’s not a race.

“You can’t put nine pregnant women in a room and make a baby in a month.” – quote heard from a participant attending a social enterprise discussion

We thought this quote was such a great illustration of a key lesson we have learned as it was said in reference to aid workers and social entrepreneurs who are aiming to save the world tomorrow. We’ve had our moments of sprinting, and we know how tiring that can be. And we also know that no matter how much we rush it, that baby is going to take time to grow, so we had better be prepared for a long process. Patience is a virtue we seek out, and when we can’t find it, we build long-term design into our programs, so their structure keeps us in check. We too want to save the world tomorrow, but we know that improving the world step by step, starting with ourselves, is a slow process, and the results are worth the wait.

11) Nurture the creative and quirky PEPY culture

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes YOU come alive, and then go out and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Harold Whitman Thurman

Working at PEPY makes US come alive. That’s not just our favorite quote, but also something we live by. We take our work seriously, but we love what we do and who we do it with, so we have a lot of fun. We sing, we dance, and we make a lot of stupid jokes. Everyone we work with is a little bit weird and a little bit silly, and those little bits are things that give rise to some of our best and creative ideas. If we didn’t love this team like a family or laugh as much as we do each day, we wouldn’t be as passionate about working at PEPY.

12) Wave until you can’t see them anymore.

We are family.

We consider ourselves part of the PEPY family, and in brainstorms about our core values and strengths, “family” was a word which prevailed throughout our team. We have had many people from across Cambodia and around the world come work with us and join our family, and when they leave, we stand outside and wave until we can’t see them anymore. Even after they have left, they are still part of us, and their impact continues to shape our growth. We consider YOU part of the PEPY family too if you have visited us, shared our lessons, supported our work, cheered us on, or if you share our values. Thank you for never giving up on us or on anyone you care about and for continuing to send us a wave when you come across things which you think can help PEPY grow.

13) Live the principles we promote. Work with integrity.

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.  Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.  Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.  Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.  Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.  But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.  ~Buddha

It’s definitely not enough to talk the talk, we need to walk the walk. Role modeling our principles to become an integral part of each of our lives is a principle within itself. Give us feedback (remember, we love that!) and help keep us in line if you think we are falling short.


  • http://mindfulnessforngos.org/ Alessandra Pigni

    I enjoyed reading this post and it deeply resonated with my approach. Some of PEPY’S core value reminded me of Peter Senge’s ‘learning organisation’, and of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s ‘mindful organisation’. Living and cultivating an environment where ‘thinking outside the box’ is encouraged and expected is refreshing and gives meaning to one’s work (and life). Though bringing to the table reflection and action as you do, thinking unreasonably and dreaming big is by no means easy. It requires great commitment and the willingness to take risks and expose oneself not only to successes, but also to failures, and that can be (is!) very uncomfortable. If interested see my post on The Paradox of Reflection and Action http://mindfulnessforngos.org/2011/08/17/reflection-ad-action/

  • http://twitter.com/TravelOffRadar Travel Off the Radar

    Transparency and humbleness are key – I love that about PEPY. The fact is no organization is perfect (or person for that matter) and am highly impressed with they way PEPY handles this truth. Understanding and embracing this is ironically, the only way to overcome setbacks or “failure”.  So glad that feedback and never ending quest for improvement play the type of role that they do in PEPY.

    -Tania Segura

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for sending this, Alessandra. Very interesting work you do – I’d love to learn more!  ANd thanks for the kind comments!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Tania. Just posted a failure story on here today…. would love your thoughts. Thanks for the comment!