Core Values: Practiced or Platitudes?

By Dan Gordon
May 31, 2017

I remember walking into a job interview in 2001 at a mid-sized enterprise software company.   Beautiful plaques describing the company’s core values hung from the wall -- in the reception lobby, in the meeting rooms -- seemingly everywhere I looked.  They were thoughtful and well written.  Unfortunately, as I learned after joining the company, they in no way reflected the actual values or behaviors of the company.

Two years later, I joined a startup called Guidewire Software (now a multi-billion dollar public company), where I would stay for the next 12 years.  Building a high-integrity, high-quality culture was a passion of the six co-founders from the beginning.  They had core values in place before there was even a clear product direction (See section 1 of this presentation for a description of Guidewire’s core values).  Those values were reinforced by actions, and later by the business model.  With that bedrock, the company was able to grow for many years with a coherent culture and far less politics and tribalism than “normal”.  It was able to attract and retain great talent in a very un-sexy business (insurance transactional software) in Silicon Valley.  Most importantly, it created a place I was proud to go to work every day.

It was a powerful lesson, and as I began my last job search, company culture was my #1 priority.

When I first met Sean (Ascend’s founder), just about the only things on the company website were his blog posts about Humility and Transparency.  That immediately signaled to me that this might be the right kind of place for me -- a signal that was confirmed over the course of many discussions during the interview process.  In the months since I’ve joined, the entire Ascend team has worked together to define a set of core values and behaviors that represent the organization we want -- moreover expect -- to be.

While I’m proud of what we’ve defined, the most important work is in taking our values beyond a website and weaving them into our day to day (and then keeping them there as we grow!).  Why focus on this now?  It’s easy to have a strong de facto culture as a small company.  But then things start moving fast, the company grows, and if you aren’t intentional about it, you inevitably drift into becoming “just another company” with all of the normal politics, tribalism, etc.

One simple test of whether core values are practiced or are mere platitudes is if they are ever actually used by leadership to make decisions that weren’t purely in the company’s near-term self-interest.

I like that test.  We’re off to a good start at Ascend, with a healthy existing culture, an intentional focus on keeping the culture intact as we grow, and an agreed description of the culture and core values.  Now comes the hard part of continuing to live them every day and making sure they don’t wind up as platitudes on a plaque.  We look forward to the challenge ahead in proving that our values can stand the tests of time and scale.