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Hearts of Fold A couple of weeks ago I sat down with Cynthia Schames, whose Abbey Post is democratizing plus-sized fashion through technology innovation.

We had chatted here in comments about the office culture in co-working spaces.  I thought that an expansion of that conversation would make a good blog post.

It would have.  Instead, though, we wound up talking about Abbey Post’s technology, and moved on to startup culture and values.

Early on, as a one-woman enterprise, Cynthia had her values front and center.   One of her values is transparency, so her values are online, for all to see.

Today, the Abbey Post team has added co-founder Lex Mustafin, a small tech team, contractors and brand ambassadors — and they’re being recognized!   Cynthia keeps a hard copy of her values at hand, reviews them frequently, and uses them as she makes decisions.

As a leader, I have a responsibility to create a culture that delights and nurtures and empowers employees.  So many companies, big and small, do this wrong.

I’m not saying I’m doing it entirely right, but I am sure that I give a lot of thought to the process, and I care deeply about building a company that’s reflective of the values I want to see in the world.

– Cynthia Schames

Cynthia has nailed something important.   Abbey Post’s values are her personal values.

Values are lived aspirations.  Life is a daily dance, most of us moving in and out of alignment with our values.

Unless we’re saints.

(How many of us insist we’re “fine,” when we’re not — even when honesty is one of our values?)

Once we share our values with employees, they’re no longer an aspiration.   They’re a promise.

And our people will be watching.  When our actions don’t align with our values, people have choices.  They can:

We need to get it right.

When an early-stage founder or business owner asks me, “When should we start thinking about values and culture,” my answer is always, “Now.”

To start, know your own values.   You can only behave to what you believe.   (And even there, you’ll miss sometimes.   I know I do.)

Over time, your values will operate differently.  When the team still fits around a conference table, teamwork can mean that every opinion can count, in every decision.

As you grow, that kind of consensus-building can slow things down.  Teamwork will look different at 25, 50, 500 people than it does when you’re at your first 5 people.

Keeping your values in mind, you’ll have a frame for making intentional choices about these inevitable changes.

First, like Cynthia, start by knowing what you stand for.

Photo:  Hearts of Gold by Alan Levine, via Flickr, under Creative Commons license.