Feb 162017

Reboot – Where do a company’s Values come from, and where do they go?

I’ve written a lot over the years about Return Path’s Core Values (summary post with lots of links to other posts here).  And I’ve also written and believe strongly that there’s a big difference between values, which are pretty unchanging, and culture, which can evolve a lot over time.  But I had a couple conversations recently that led me to think more philosophically about a company’s values.

The first conversation was at a recent dinner for a group of us working on fundraising for my upcoming 25th reunion from Princeton.  Our guest speaker was a fellow alumnus who I’ve gotten to know and respect tremendously over the years as one of the school’s most senior and influential volunteer leaders.  He was speaking about the touchstones in his life and in all people’s lives — things like their families, their faith, the causes they’re passionate about, and the institutions they’ve been a part of.  I remember this speaker giving a similar set of remarks right after the financial crisis hit in early 2009.  And it got me thinking about the origins of Return Path’s values, which I didn’t create on my own, but which I obviously had a tremendous amount of influence over as founder.  Where did they come from?  Certainly, some came from my parents and grandparents.  Some came from my primary and secondary education and teachers.  Some came from other influences like coaches, mentors, and favorite books.  Although I’m not overly observant, some certainly came from Hebrew school and even more so from a deep reading of the Bible that I undertook about 15 years ago for fun (it was much more fun than I expected!).  Some came from other professional experiences before I started Return Path.  But many of them either came from, or were strongly reinforced by my experience at Princeton.  Of the 15 values we currently articulate, I can directly tie at least seven to Princeton:  helpful, thankful, data-driven, collaborative, results-oriented, people first, and equal in opportunity.  I can also tie some other principles that aren’t stated values at Return Path, but which are clearly part of our culture, such as intellectually curious, appreciative of other people’s points of view, and valuing an interdisciplinary approach to work.

As part of my professional Reboot project, this was a good reminder of some of the values I know I’ve gotten from my college experience as a student and as an alumni, which was helpful both to reinforce their importance in my mind but also to remember some of the specifics around their origins – when and why they became important to me.  I could make a similar list and trade and antecedents of all or at least most of our Company’s values back to one of those primary influences in my life.  Part of Reboot will be thinking through all of these and renewing and refreshing their importance to me.

The second conversation was with a former employee who has gone on to lead another organization.  It led me to the observation I’ve never really thought through before, that as a company, we ourselves have become one of those institutions that imprints its values into the minds of at least some of its employees…and that those values will continue to be perpetuated, incorporated, and improved upon over time in any organization that our employees go on to join, manage part of, or lead.

That’s a powerful construct to keep in mind if you’re a new CEO working on designing and articulating your company’s values for the first time.  You’re not just creating a framework to guide your own organization.  You’re creating the beginning of a legacy that could potentially influence hundreds or thousands of other organizations in the future.