Alex Weinstein
On Growth, Product, and Leadership
Are Your Company Values Just Empty Words?


I had a chance to interact with two companies recently: Homegrown and City of Bellevue Utilities. These two companies helped me crystallize the difference between “value statement on the wall” and “values that are coming through to customers.”

Homegrown’s tagline is “sustainable sandwich shop.” Their About Us page has the word “organic” mentioned 22 times. It says that “stores are designed to be as low-impact as possible… [using] reclaimed, recycled … building materials.” Their napkin dispenser asks you to think about the environment and only take as many napkins as you will use. They have metallic cutlery at every table. Clearly, owners at Homegrown are trying to project an identity that stands for sustainability and environmental awareness.


Yet, when you order a salad “for here,” you get a single-use plastic container with a salad inside.

I was stunned when I saw this – I even double-checked with an employee that they got my order right. What would cause such a mismatch of identity and execution?.. Getting this wrong is

akin to Microsoft accounting using an abacus to do budgeting – contrary to the core reason why the company exists.

City of Bellevue incorporated in 1953. It has a legalized monopoly over certain utilities delivered to its residents – water, for example. Based on the lack of competition, one would expect their Utilities department to be worse than Comcast – long wait times, difficult-to-deal-with phone navigation trees, rude and incompetent customer service reps.

Au contraire, my friends,_ _the exact opposite. One button press to talk to a human. Zero wait time. Extremely polite and knowledgeable account rep that not only answered my dumb questions but anticipated what my needs will be several months down the road and told me how to prepare.

How do you explain this? City of Bellevue staffers don’t get paid well. We typically think of government employees as the antithesis of entrepreneurial ambition: craving unionized benefits, job security, and guaranteed pensions. And yet… City of Bellevue folks knocked it out of the park.

How do you explain such a stark difference between the stereotypes and reality in these two cases?

Here is one possible explanation: actual buy-in into company values. At Homegrown, the person responsible for in-restaurant dining experience could not care less about company values – they were just getting paid. They weren’t doing their job out of the sense of connection to the company’s purpose.

Somehow – Bellevue Utilities must have a remarkable leader – their employees _actually believe _that their purpose is to

.. support public health and safety, quality neighborhoods and a healthy and sustainable environment and economy by effectively managing: drinking water, waste water, storm and surface water, and solid waste.

Heck, anyone that can galvanize employees to be excited about a mission statement that includes the words “solid waste” deserves a medal.

I believe this has to do with intrinsic motivation – the concepts of autonomy, mastery, and purpose that Dan Pink talks about in his remarkable TED talk (below) and book. The sense of purpose – a genuine conviction that what I’m working on is a part of a bigger mission that I believe in – is strong in the case of Bellevue Utilities and missing in the case of Homegrown.

Let me ask you: have you recently seen someone take actions at your company that are directly in line with your company’s values? Share your story in the comments below.