Why we do the work: The value in values-based leadership
In the Works-featured founders and builders share their experiences leading with values.
Recent research conducted by Qualtrics found that core values of an employer, especially well-being, honesty, and respect, are a priority for workers today: “More than half of US employees (54%) would be willing to take a pay cut to work at a company with better values, and even more – 56% – wouldn’t even consider a job at a company that has values they disagree with.”
At In the Works, the role of values in founding, growing, and leading a business has been at the center of our story from the beginning. We love to highlight the work of folks who are thinking intentionally about values as they create positive, healthy workplaces that help people thrive and build businesses that do good in the world.
Given how much love we have for this approach to building and growing businesses, we want to dig into what we mean when we talk about values at In the Works. To tackle the topic, we’re answering key questions about what it actually means to lead with values by doing what we do best: shining a light on the experiences of scrappy leaders who are walking the talk of values-led leadership.
What is values-based leadership, anyway?
If you’re thinking that the answer here is self-explanatory, you’re right. The idea is pretty simple: “Values-based,” “values-driven,” or “values-led” leadership is an approach to leading a team and a business in which values drive decision-making, strategy, and communication. But even though the philosophy is straightforward, founders and key leaders who are committed to the approach understand that leading with values means digging deep and doing the work.
What’s the work? If you want to motivate your team and align around shared principles to grow a business, you first need to be really clear about your own values. What are the core principles that will guide your leadership and, in turn, the business? From there, it’s all about acting in a way that reflects those values. That means making strategic decisions around company structure, leading key culture work like DE&I, and showing up as an authentic human in your interactions with team members in both good times and hard times (in the business and in life moments).
OK, so that’s the topline summary, but what does it actually look like when a founder commits to values-driven leadership? To give you a sense of how this approach can take shape, here are some insights from In the Works-featured founders.
CreativeMornings founder Tina Roth Eisenberg on the importance of having early conversations around values:
“We talked about the values we wanted to instill in CreativeMornings pretty early on. Once we were a team of four, we went through a ‘discover your why’ process. It was extremely powerful to do that work of discovering our values and our motivation with a tiny team. Everyone was so aligned around the purpose. I think that was when I really knew that even though I wasn't full-time CEO at that point, I wanted to take this seriously.
I just knew in my heart of hearts that what was really going to matter to me in the long run would be to look back at some point and say, ‘I had a positive impact on people's lives. People have gained opportunities. They've met friends. They’ve been inspired creatively.’ There's nothing more powerful to me personally than that. That's how I define success.”
Mikayla Wujec and Naomi Blackman, co-founders of outdoor apparel company alder, focused on values at launch — and still do today:
“One of the first things we did was sit down and come up with values that felt true to us,” Mikayla said. “We didn’t want to just put out stock values; we wanted to make sure that they really spoke to the kind of unique company we wanted to build in the outdoor industry.”
Articulating their commitment to sustainability, diversity, and inclusivity in the outdoors, nurturing community, and intentionally investing in the next generation has given the co-founders valuable touchpoints to guide decision-making as they’ve scaled. “Whether we’re making decisions about operational steps, like hiring, or we’re talking about the brand to our consumers, we really want to make sure that we are continually speaking to our values,” Naomi said.
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Are there common attributes of values-based leadership?
There is no cookie-cutter template or how-to guide for values-driven leadership. Every leader will come to the table with different values, shaped by personal experiences and unique goals for their businesses. That said, across the founders, experts, and company leaders we’ve featured, there are some common themes — attributes that support their leadership and reflect their values.
When leaders are self-aware, they recognize and understand their own beliefs, principles, emotions, and shortcomings. With this clarity — and ongoing reflection — they’re better able to consistently tap into their values to lead a team and a business.
Leadership and executive coach Amy Jin encourages values-led founders to recognize how important it is to cultivate emotional intelligence and, specifically, self-awareness:
“Many startup founders begin their journeys believing that success in their business will come from intellectual mastery alone — being the smartest and using only cognitive ability to make the best decisions or outmaneuver their competition. Unfortunately, this leads people to separate themselves from their emotions, suppressing feelings and forgetting that, at the end of the day, it’s other people they need to inspire and lead.
When we can tap into emotion, we can connect with ourselves and with one another, which is what we actually need in order to obtain insights, make better decisions, and develop the resilience to build this thing that nobody has built before.”
When a leader is able to listen, appreciate different perspectives, and acknowledge their own limitations and opportunities to learn, they encourage a learning mindset throughout the company and empower their teams.
Jennifer Harper, founder and CEO of Cheekbone Beauty, an Indigenous-founded and owned Canadian cosmetics company, shared how humility helped her company grow:
“I learned that it's really important to be humble and to understand what you're capable of doing and what you're not capable of doing and to make choices based on that to meet the business’ needs. As a founder, I was passionate about the vision I had for Cheekbone from the beginning, but there came a point when I realized I couldn’t do everything well to see that vision become a reality. I needed help finding the right people to fill the gaps. Bringing in that crucial expertise at the beginning set us up to build out the larger team, which quickly expanded to include finance, product development, and operations leads.”
A clear and strong sense of purpose — your “why” — shows up again and again in the stories of values-driven leaders. These folks are intentional about what they’re doing and the impact they’re aiming for, and that mission inspires teams and customers.
Carey Anne Nadeau, co-founder of auto insurance startup Loop, shared how she and co-founder John Henry have led with purpose from the beginning:
“Mission has driven everything we do from day one. If that mission — building trust in financial services — isn’t reflected in everything from messaging to how we treat customers to the culture within our team, we risk losing our way.”
For Branching Minds co-founders Maya Gat and David Magier, a deep-seated purpose to support students has shaped key decisions about the company structure and long-term impact:
“If we had listened to early accelerator advisors who recommended a B2C model of selling directly to parents and teachers rather than to school districts, Branching Minds would’ve only supported folks who had the extra income to afford an app or access a paid service. We knew we had to stick to B2B and just figure out how to work with schools from that point forward. That’s how we would meet our mission.”
An authentic leader is genuine and motivated to act in a way that aligns with values — even when that’s not always the easy or efficient choice. When a leader is consistently authentic, they build trust and motivate their team.
Uncommon Goods founder Dave Bolotsky has always been true to his values — in life and in business:
“I have certain key values that come from parents who walked the talk. They’re still alive, and they’re people who have lived their values and raised my sister and me in such a way that we understand there are things that are more important than money — and that we should blaze our own trail (and not listen to the crowd). Someone once told me, ‘Listen to the fans, and you end up in the stands.’ You’ve got to be yourself, and I’m a big believer in trying to do good in the world and be independent.”
What are the benefits of values-based leadership — for a business and a community?
When a founder and a leadership team lead with values and build a culture around those principles, the leaders themselves, the team, and the community see the upside. Read on for examples of how values-driven practices create positive impact within companies, communities, and the world.
Kathryn Finney shared how core values have created a positive culture at Genius Guild:
“One of the things that we did at the very beginning as a team at Genius Guild to help embrace our mission, which is not typical among startups, was to spend a lot of time, effort, and money on company culture. Specifically, we asked, ‘What are our core values? What is it that we care about? Who are we?’ The number one core value we determined was to ‘be human.’
Part of being human is that you can fail. Human beings fail. I think calling that out from the beginning has created a sense of safety for staff members that other companies or organizations might not have.”
TestBox co-founder Sam Senior shared how he intentionally creates opportunities to regularly talk about values — and operationalize them:
The company’s values, which prioritize human-centered, mindful connections within the team and in the wider world, highlight the co-founders’ commitment to mental health. And the values are not just for show: “We review our values quarterly, as a whole company, to reflect on whether they still ring true and how we’re living them or not,” Sam said.
The co-founders are also very aware of the impact of modeling specific behaviors — in big and small ways — to reflect those values and develop a mentally healthy workplace. One way they consistently do this: Slack status updates. Every Tuesday morning, Sam’s profile emoji indicates he’s in therapy and won’t be responding to messages. If an employee heads out for exercise or just takes some time for a mental health break, they’re encouraged to share that via Slack, too.
All of these practices and the founders’ modeling help team members feel supported in showing up authentically each day. “I really want to create an environment where people can show up to work as the true version of themselves,” Sam said. “That’s when they’ll do their best work.”
Rohani Foulkes, founder of Folk, a cafe and specialty market in Detroit, described how she thinks about leading the business to consistently reflect the core principle of serving her community:
“Every decision is about creating a better experience for everyone in our ecosystem, including (and especially) our customers. It’s a mission we’ve codified on our website and live by every day: We value our customers and promise to actively listen to, respect, and work on fulfilling their needs; we are a team that aligns ourselves with suppliers, neighbors, small businesses, writers, and advocates that uphold shared values and responsibility in each other’s success; we seek to reduce our impact on the environment and develop a stronger, more equitable food system for all.”
East Fork co-founder Connie Mattise is focused on authentically leading with values inside the business — and ensuring those values make an impact in the world:
East Fork’s quest to build an increasingly equitable, inclusive world permeates every part of the business. It’s also something the team talks and writes about regularly and extensively. Across East Fork’s site, you can read through the plethora of ways the team has committed to dismantling oppressive systems through the ways they operate internally, and they provide plenty of ways for customers to take action, too.
But more important than being outspoken about their values (and how they implement them), the East Fork team is just as honest about their shortcomings. When they recently became a certified B Corporation, further codifying their commitment to equity and sustainability, they shared the news alongside a description of the areas where they most need to improve and how they plan to do so.
Yes, there is real value in leading with values
Showing up each day to bring a business to life — and keep it healthy — is no small thing. Whether you’re a founder, in a leadership role, or a committed team member in any position, it makes a real difference to do that work fueled by the momentum and joy of shared goals and values. As a leader, the opportunity to define those values and consistently reflect them in the daily life of an organization is an opportunity to grow as a human and grow your company for good.