Defining Shift’s Values: the Rewarding (and Surprisingly Hard) Process of Distilling What Matters

In the fall of 2015, Shift was quickly hiring the team and expanding operations. Things were rapidly changing and we realized that we were at risk of outpacing our own culture if we didn’t take a step back to reflect.

I sat down with our founding team to begin the painstaking process of analyzing our DNA. Without identifying the pieces of our culture we wanted to deliberately retain, I worried that we’d grow in a direction that was unfaithful to our initial founding purpose: to improve the experience of buying and selling automobiles.

Though coming up with our values was straightforward in theory, it was incredibly challenging in practice. Ten months and many discussions later we feel like we’ve finally gotten there and have chosen to share our major insights on identifying cultural values in case it’s a useful reference point for others. At the end of it all, here’s where we landed:

Ask: what if it were great
At a time when stale car buying is the norm, we’re building its radical evolution. Put trust and integrity first to deliver the great experience people deserve.

Be an entrepreneur
No worthwhile endeavor is accomplished from the sidelines. It’s accomplished through action and resourcefulness. Where others saw a Costco parking lot, we saw an operations hub. When we keep fire in the belly, we find the way forward where no one else can.

Build the differential
For horse-drawn buggies, fixed axles are fine. But cars can’t properly turn with fixed axles. Rather than settling for horses, build the differential. When faced with (seemingly) impossible problems, we seek the elegantly engineered solution.

Remember the GT40
No one driver or car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It takes a team effort. Though it had never won, Ford challenged Ferrari’s Le Mans reign by pulling together its best designers, drivers, engineers, and mechanics to build the GT40.

They didn’t just win the 1966 Le Mans, they swept the podium 1-2-3, proving that spirit and teamwork together can challenge precedent and set new standards.

Bet on each other
No tree grows tall without strong roots. Our foundation comes from the incredible people we hire and the bond of mutual trust between us. Be supportive and communicate openly to help create an amazing work environment.

If you or your organization is considering developing your values, here are a few things we learned that might help you:

Start literal, finish abstract
Though we admired the conceptual approaches of other companies, we knew we would never be able to agree on the perfect metaphors to convey our values if we didn’t begin very literally first. We knew we were on firmer footing after the first couple discussions when we were able to narrow our list down to five concrete values the group could agree on.

Get internal buy-in
Once we had a draft we felt good about, we shopped them around with the team. From managers to the operational frontline, every department was tapped for their feedback. To set the right expectations, we made sure that people understood these were a work in progress. The feedback we got was very helpful in iterating future versions and gave the whole team an opportunity to put their fingerprints on the exercise.

Find your shared secrets
By taking the literal approach from the get-go, we weren’t surprised to hear that the values, though feeling like the right ones, rang a little generic. The next step was to incorporate the team’s suggestions to evolve our values into more meaningful abstractions of the literal versions.

With the help of the design team, we identified the metaphors, artifacts, and pieces of culture that could represent the core spirit of the first set of values. We found that the weirder or more interpretive an object was, the more potential it had to a shared secret: something highly meaningful that would seem meaningless from the outside looking in. The Costco parking lot we used as our first operations hub became our personal emblem for one value, a Ford race car for another. With this as a compass, we landed on several resonant references that felt highly authentic to who we were and want to be.

Put on your editor’s hat
Tim Ferriss has said that when he was 90% done with his book The Four Hour Body, a friend congratulated him on being 50% done. Indeed, the final touches were some of the hardest of the entire process. Eventually, a version you are completely happy with is a version that others want to polish, and vice versa.

The very act of defining the shared values among a group is an act of compromise. It’s valuable, then, to embrace the fact that it’ll never perfectly satisfy everyone. In many ways, the unsettled areas are a reflection of the incomplete state of any growing company. I’m also certain that these will act as fodder for a future iteration.

Roll them out purposefully
After all that hard work, you don’t want to just casually roll them out. We thought a lot about how to share these with the broader team in a fun way that communicated “we care about this. We put time into this. This is a reflection of how we view ourselves and our work.” without seeming… cultish.

For us, that meant dedicating an entire session of our monthly All Hands to them. We had key executives give the context to the values, why we thought the idea of values are important to Shift, and took turns each reading the value. After that, we took a moment to explain why that value was personally meaningful and shared a story of a memorable time we saw that value demonstrated within the company.

Once we got through all five values, we asked the team to huddle up with the people around them and just reflect on the values and think of in what ways they resonate with what not only Shift is doing, but with what they do day-to-day.

Beforehand, we were a little nervous. Would the session across as corny and inauthentic? In the end, it felt like one of the best All Hands we’ve ever had, and I was told as much by my team at all levels of the org. A genuine delivery and an enthusiastic MCing from our COO Minnie really helped it all gel, and the final sharing after the huddles were filled with incredible and new examples of our values in action.

We closed the session with a reminder to try to use the values in our everyday meetings and conversations. Our design team installed subtle physical reminders of the values and crafted tasteful posters to hang in our offices. I get a little bit thrilled every time I overhear someone shout “what if it were great!” to build consensus or “GT40!” to acknowledge a moment of teamwork. We’re looking forward to building them into training & new hire orientation, hiring, and performance reviews.

The process took a while, but in the end, we’re a better company for it.

TL;DR tips:

  • Get started early, it’ll take longer than you think
  • Start literal, finish abstract
  • Be considerate of the input from the team at large
  • Roll them out with purpose and bookmark areas for development as the company grows