How to Develop Organizational Values: Q&A with Rule29's Justin Ahrens

Justine Ahrens

Want to build a firm with strong organizational values? Follow the lead of Rule29's Justin Ahrens.

As founder and principal of the creative firm Rule29, Justin Ahrens has built a creative culture based not just on doing good work but also doing actual good. It's the kind of ethos that builds team loyalty and creates a healthy work environment conducive to creative problem solving.

Here, Ahrens discusses Rule29's organizational values and the positive impact that extends far beyond the walls of his Illinois-based firm.

How does one establish and lead a company with strong organizational values? Are there key concepts or rules? 

Culture is created by defining what your company stands for and making decisions based on those values. Workplace culture is the manifestation of the company's beliefs and values. It ultimately becomes the "How We Do Things Around Here." These beliefs and values have to be established early on and used to help identify the right fit for the right employees and the right clients. The rules that need to be followed are pretty straightforward ­– be true to your values. They need to be your benchmark.

Why and how did you develop the firm's philosophy of "Making Creative Matter"?

Making Creative Matter was part of our foundational values and positioning. We wanted something that was more than a tagline but could be descriptive of our work and aspirational, and represent the soul of the firm. The line not only denotes we make creative things, but also we want to create work that matters to our clients and work that can positively impact the world.

The Rule29 Team Photographed in January

How did you unite your creative team members around those values? 

We live these values by doing the kind of work we want to do, treating each other with respect, and serving our clients the best we can. We also meet twice a year to pause and talk about the things that we do well and how to tweak things that we don't, and set goals as we progress. Creating the space to see the value in what we do and what we are about is paramount.

Do you think strong organizational values lead to greater employee loyalty? 

We believe it does. For the last 15 years we have had little turnover, and most of those who do explore the next stage in their careers remain close friends. We care about each other and work hard to maintain a culture that people want to be a part of. 

In what ways does doing work for organizations such as Unicef and Lifewater help your company?

Supporting organizations that are mission-driven and doing work that makes the world a better place is a very satisfying experience. Who wouldn't want to spend a day helping an organization save lives, feed the hungry or help those who are the most marginalized?

This work helps us realize that we can use our skills to help shift opinions, inspire people to act, bring clarity to complex issues – the list goes on. This is important because it helps with how we approach every project and it enforces our organizational values. You begin to believe that what you do is powerful, and it can be leveraged to create real, positive change. 

You've combined your passions for biking and helping others to form Wheels4Water. Can you tell us about this endeavor and what it means? 

I partnered with Brian MacDonald of Wonderkind Studios to form Wheels4Water in 2014. We wanted to raise awareness and funding to help fight the worldwide water crisis. Our goal was to raise $40,000 to start a water program in Uganda. For every $40 we raised, a Ugandan would get water, sanitation and hygiene education for life. So Brian and I needed to ride at least 1,000 miles, which happened to be about the distance from Boston to Chicago. So, over two weeks, we rode 1,207 miles and told everyone we could about the reality of Uganda's water crisis. When we got off our bikes and dipped our tires in Lake Michigan, we had raised $93,000! We ended up exceeding $100,000 for the year. That's 2,500 Ugandans getting water for life!

After the successful ride in 2014, Lifewater asked if we would consider a smaller ride with the same objective: For each mile we ride, a person will get water and sanitation for life. Brian and I are riding 450 miles down the coast of California, the first week of June, starting north of San Francisco and ending at Lifewater's headquarters in San Louis Obispo to help 450 kids at a school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If we are successful, we will raise $18,000 to help make this project happen. This fall, Brian and I are going to Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo with some of our sponsors to see the progress of the projects.

Are your employees encouraged to bring causes that are important to them to the table?

Employees are asked what inspires, motivates and matters to them, and give guidance on how to create space for those things. We do service days with other design firms to get out and serve together. We also allow anyone on the team to explore and discover how to get involved in things that matter to them. We spend at least 20 percent of our time on things like this, and we call it Give.

The opinions expressed in Q&A posts are those of the interviewees, and do not necessarily reflect or represent opinions of The Creative Group or its parent company.

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