Updated: Apr 12
PagerDuty former VP of People shares why values are critical to long-term success and the upside to starting fresh.
PagerDuty debuted on the New York Stock Exchange at $36.75 a share — more than 50% above the initial public offering price. Going public can bring a lot of, well, public attention to your organization. Josh Levine, author, and principal of Great Mondays spoke with our client, Zarah Gulamhusein, Vice President of People at PagerDuty, about the often-tricky process of re-launching corporate values and why it’s crucial to define those values before a company goes public.
Photo: Courtney Crow | NYSE
JL: What did you take into consideration as you set out to define an entirely new set of values?
ZG: A year and a half ago, the company had spent some time identifying our values, and we’d come out with about six generic values. Words like teamwork, and inclusion, but there was no meat to them. We had to sit back and reflect on where we came from, where we needed to be, what values we hold dear, what values were holding us back, and what values will enable us to move forward.
It was important for us to reflect on the past and have rich dialogue about who we want to be as a company. Then we considered how our values play into that. At the same time, we were also starting our branding conversations, asking ourselves, “Who do we want to be in the market?” And values are a core tenant of that. They all interplay with each other.
JL: Do you think that it’s possible that a company can establish new values without executive buy-in?
ZG: I don’t think it’s possible because the senior leaders need to live and breathe the values and constantly provide reinforcement. They need to demonstrate those behaviors, talk about it, live it, and use it to give constructive feedback. It’s critical that they’re part of that.
PagerDuty values created in partnership with Great Mondays
JL: If you were talking to one of your peers, a CHRO at another organization, and they asked, “We just redid our values. How did you get your employees to start living them?” What would you tell them?
ZG: First of all, we involved our employees in defining the values. Our cultural all-stars are the high potential employees at the company that we want to model our values after. They came from all different functions across the organization and all different backgrounds. These people reflected the type of company that we want to be in the future. They have great perspectives, and they all brought different ideas. I think that diversity of thought and active participation really helped get our team excited to adopt our new values quickly.
And we went through many rounds. It took us six months of refinements. We also had a great partner in your team at Great Mondays. We kept an open dialogue with you and with our executive leadership team. It was very collaborative and very open. No one held back, and we developed a lot of psychological safety and trust throughout the process.
When we landed on our final values, we engaged with the leadership and all our managers. We held a kickoff meeting to really express how important this is. When I sent the final values to the managers, so many of them came up to me and said, “This is the most amazing thing. This reflects who we are as a company.” Our values really felt true to who we are and who we want to be — that made it easier.
JL: PagerDuty recently went public. Why commit to spending six months on your values in the midst of such a big transition?
ZG: What sets a great company apart is the culture. That’s what amplifies the experience for everyone working for and with your team. You can have a great product, great leadership team, but if you don’t have the right culture and people who want to engage, then you’re not going to be successful as a business. Our culture is multiplying and amplifying everything we do.
“You can have a great product, great leadership team, but if you don’t have the right culture and people who want to engage then you’re not going to be successful as a business.” — Zarah Gulamhusein, VP of People, PagerDuty
JL: How do you know your values are successful?
ZG: One indication is when I see the values language in our day-to-day work. For example, one of our values is Ack + Own, which is a nod to our products. In our engineering Slacks, you can see employees are using that phrasing in messages, saying “I got this. I ack and own this.” They’re also giving each other feedback on how well they’re living the values or how they could incorporate the values a bit more. I haven’t had one employee, or candidate, or new hire come back to me and say, “This value doesn’t make sense.” That, to me, is very rare and unique.
JL: What are the two most important things you’ve learned in this process that you’ll carry with you?
ZG: The first is think big — bigger than yourself. Think about where you want to be in the future and create values that will be that North Star, guiding light. Push yourself as a company and as a business to think long term.
The second lesson learned is to have an inclusive process. Don’t just include your exec team and your HR team, involve all your employees because they are what make the company. An inclusive process that engages people of all different functions, experiences, and backgrounds truly creates the best ideas, and that’s the type of company that we’re building. That is who we are. Build a process that represents who you are as a company.
“An inclusive process that engages people of all different functions, experiences, and backgrounds creates the best ideas, and that’s the type of company that we’re building.” — Zarah Gulamhusein, VP of People, PagerDuty
JL: What do you think leaders should know before refreshing their values?
ZG: If you decide to partner with a third party, make sure that you trust each other and that you’re open to giving each other feedback. Whoever you partner with on this process, whoever is going to guide you through, needs to be open and receptive to learning about your culture and giving you feedback on what they discover.