Adolescence to Adulthood as a Values-Driven Company

As a CEO, from time to time you get weak signals – feedback about the emotional life of the company you tend.  It’s never a science but I try to gather these voices and pay attention when they begin to form a current. I believe one way to help ‘culture’ grow is to name and examine these streams when they become apparent.

The recent Ownership Thinking Workshop was an example of me responding to this type of current.  Although one of our core values is Entrepreneurship (“Own the end result”), I was consistently hearing people attribute “results” (or non-results) to an anonymous “they”.  Furthermore, as a company, we were not making information about our results available – so how could we expect anyone to own them.  Thus, the OT workshops were scheduled and information shared.

Curiously enough, in the anonymous feedback after those sessions, I think I may have discovered another current.  Let me share this one person’s feedback (note: to the person who wrote this – I think your response is very insightful and constructive – I hope you will permit me to share it for the benefit of the company.  If not, well… too late… sorry…):

Q: On a scale of 0-5, how valuable was the recent “Ownership Thinking” workshop?  What one thing could have been improved?

“—4— One thing…Consistency of the message. Although sometimes relatively amusing, the back and forth between John and Tim is a bit conflicting and contradictory. I believe in Tim’s vision, what we want to do, where we’re going, and I want to be a part of it. Then John speaks and somewhat squashes or diminishes the importance of what Tim has said – for what John needs to say. Perhaps that is intended – good cop/bad cop. Definitely both sides are taken seriously, and often there are many sides to a message, but it is somewhat disconcerting when it feels disjointed at the top.  It’s like John is working from the type of company that I came from, and Tim represents that company I came to, and where I want to stay. Just to be clear, this has nothing to do with the push for metrics – I like metrics. I respect both leaders, but I want to know that I am working for the Chief Steward, CEO, and I would like to see a higher level of respect shown to him by the COO, instead overriding or undermining what he says.”

So, is this a single comment or a current?  I’ve checked around in the last few weeks and I believe it is the latter.  There are at least a handful of people who believe John and I are not on the same page.

First of all, let me be clear: I have never felt that John has disrespected and/or undermined me or the company in any way. John and I are on the same page.  Period.

But here’s the thing: it’s one hell of a page.

Look at what we are trying to do at Ian Martin (and I mean all of us – not just John and I).  We’re trying to take a 56 year-old company, steward it faithfully, run it profitably and at the same time, transform it into the kind of company that operates on the leading edge of values-driven workplaces like Netflix, Whole Foods, and Patagonia – yes, to provide truly ‘Meaningful Work’ for the people who work here.

Unlike those organizations, which have been purpose-built to be “Rockstars of the New Economy”, the beauty of our story (if we are successful) is that we are treading a path for the 99% of real-life companies that don’t have the benefit of being hot tech startups or led by passionate impact-driven entrepreneurs.

I believe – and I know John believes because he is my strongest encouragement – that this is worth doing.  But it is not an unambiguous task.

Conflict as a Tool

Look at our statement of values:

Our values themselves have inherent conflicts (in the past, I’ve called this ‘productive tension’) – it is the balance point of all 3 values that we are really aiming for.  There is further conflict in the fact that these values are somewhat aspirational (we note below them: “truthfully, we’re in transition”).  In other words, actual individuals who work here – because we are still evolving as a culture and may each understand the balance point differently – practice them to varying degrees.  Honestly for me, that makes it fun… I’m much more interested in the journey than the destination – that’s why I’m incredibly excited about the new Stewardship Council, whose job it is to help us walk this road more faithfully.

Not only is there some ‘conflict’ in our values themselves, John and I (agreeing with Patrick Lencioni, see below) value and actually believe in conflict itself as a fundamental tool (only secondary to trust) to build strong teams and achieve amazing results.

Look at this statement taken from our offer letter.  New employees actually sign this when they join the company now:

Authenticity is about being true.  It’s practicing integrity, transparency, and straight talk.  Everyone should feel free to bring his or her whole self to work.  Further, we believe the best decisions are made by a conflict of ideas – titles have no currency in a healthy debate.

So here’s the point.  John and I are not trying to make things “conflicting and contradictory” or perform an amusing act.  As a 56 year-old company that has recently become a B Corp – one that now wants to be governed by values to the extent that we can implement policies like Netflix’s vacation policy (“We have no vacation policy.  Produce amazing results.  Take vacation when you need it.  Come back refreshed.”) – but doesn’t yet have Netflix’s deep culture of “freedom and responsibility”, things just ARE conflicting and contradictory.

What John and I are doing in these exchanges is modeling for you how “owners” make choices about how to proceed when venturing into territory where there is no map. You will notice in these conversations that we both regularly refer to the playbook as a guide to help us remain true to our values while trying to be honest about the stage of the journey we are on.  Because John and I have strong mutual trust, we are able to freely use conflict to help find that balance point. If we are missing the mark, I believe the solution is actually to have more conflict, not less. YOU need to jump into the fray.

I believe as everyone in the company learns to practice this type of healthy conflict, we will accelerate our ‘pilgrimage’ from adolescence to adulthood as a values-driven company.


P.S. Here’s a question I’m curious about: what one word do you think summarizes the “balance point” of our values as discussed in this post?  Send me a note.  Thanks!



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