Core Values

Tuesday was my last day at SEOmoz.  Being unemployed gives me a lot of time to have coffee with various people (from VCs to entrepreneurs to recruiters).  And I’ve spent a lot of time trying to explain who I am.  That got me thinking about core values.

If you’re not familiar, core values are principles that organizations (and, as I’ll explain, individuals) use to guide decisions.  Some rather famous examples are the core values of Microsoft, Google, and Zappos. And of course there are the core values at SEOmoz.  These are tools to help explain the corporate culture to customers, partners, existing and potential employees.

I believe I (and others) can benefit from core values in the same way.  What are my decision making criteria? By what principles can I measure success?  How can I succinctly explain to someone what I stand for, at least professionally?

My Core Values

I’ve boiled down what drives me into three core values:

  1. Be customer focused
  2. Bias for action
  3. Grow in a critical atmosphere

It’s no coincidence that my first value is “be customer focused.”  This lies at the heart of so many corporate core values, and I can’t get away from it myself. The “customer” might be a paying customer, or not.  It might be a blog reader, an audience member, or a customer I haven’t met yet. Exercising this value has allowed me to turn angry customers, seeking refunds, into rabid fans who tout the customer service of my company. Ventures without customer focus seem obviously doomed to failure to me.

Secondly, I believe that no one knows as much about what you do as you.  So you should take responsibility for what you do, and act!  Success comes through action, and I firmly believe that individuals should be empowered to take that action.  Much of the success I’ve had over the last few years has been by exercising this value, sometimes without consensus, and often without running it past managers first.  This is what I’ve loved about working at a startup, even if it means mixed results.  Taking responsibility for success and failure is a critical corollary to this value.

My third value states that I need a critical environment in order to grow.  On my own I fall into patterns and routines that are comforting, but also stagnant.  I need someone to pat me on the back, and I need to pat others on the back; but I also need someone to tell me what opportunities I’ve missed, and how I can improve in the future.  I also need to be free to provide criticism for others to help them improve without worrying about personal politics.  When I tell you I disagree with your design, or your business decision, it’s not personal. :) To me, this is the heart of teamwork, and seeking out feedback and getting someone to bounce ideas off of is part of what makes a team work well.

Coming to My Core Values

This is a personal code of conduct, so there’s a lot of introspection involved.  But there is an external dimension to this too: I want to present myself professionally, and communicate my decision making process to others.  There are plenty of core values other people have put together.  To name just a few (taken from the sources I’ve already cited, with a couple of my own thrown in):

  • Act with integrity and honesty.
  • Take on big challenges and see them through.
  • Fun.
  • It’s best to do one thing really, really well.
  • Great just isn’t good enough.
  • Pursue growth and learning.
  • Do one thing. (different from doing one thing well)
  • Ask “why?”
  • Measure it!

In addition to having statements of value that reflect what I really believe, I also want a set of core values which are concise, specific, and express different dimensions of my personal and professional profile.  Conflict between values is inevitable, but when values cannot clearly be separated from one another it seems they lose value as a framework for decision making, measuring success, or communicating who you are.  If it’s not clear what “Ask why?” means and how it’s different from “Grow in a critical atmosphere,” then they’ve failed to communicate an aspect of who you are.

Some of these values, while quite appropriate for a corporation, don’t seem to apply as well to an individual (at least not to me).  For instance, “It’s best to do one thing really, really well” makes a lot of sense for a corporation that wants to index all the world’s information and make it available.  But for individuals that want to achieve such a lofty goal, this core value seems either a little too high-level or incredibly short sighted.

I also don’t want to state that I hold something as a core value if it’s not deeply internalized into who I am.  For instance, “Measure it!” is both trendy and something I think is great.  But on the other hand, this is something I haven’t internalized.  I don’t carefully measure everything I do and sometimes I act without collecting all the data I could.  I’d like to improve in this area.  ”Measure it!” also seems to conflict with my second value, “bias for action,” in some ways.  If you’re busy gathering data to support a decision before acting, then you’ve failed to hold true to acting in the face of uncertainty.

I suspect these values will continue to evolve as I do, as I gain experience, as I change my career and life goals. But these goals, and the process by which I’ve arrived at them, give me a framework to explain who I am.  And they help shape my decisions.

  1. #1 by Dr. Pete on May 13th, 2010

    Sorry to see you go, Nick, but excited to see what you have in store.

    I’ve struggled a lot with (3). Finding (and being) a manager who can be both supportive and critical is really tough. Learning to respond to both praise and criticism as an employee or contractor is equally tough.

    As I said once on Twitter – “A good manager pats you on the head and kicks you in the ass. A bad manager kick you in the head and pats you on the ass.”

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