Lessons on Culture, Values, and Starting Over with Rand Fishkin

We sat down with Rand Fishkin to dig into workplace culture, creating core values, and all the lessons he learned as the founder and former CEO of Moz.

There’s an old saying that workplace culture is like a lily pond. Everything may look peaceful and serene on the surface. But underneath the surface, there’s a deep and complex ecosystem of learned values and behaviors that dictate the visible interactions between people at work.

Most people don’t like to talk about what’s happening beneath the surface. But that’s not the case with Rand Fishkin of Sparktoro, who writes about all the messy details in his book, Lost and Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World.

We sat down with Rand to dig into workplace culture, core values, and all the lessons he learned as the founder and former CEO of Moz.

Listen to our full interview with Rand Fishkin on YouTube:

Why does culture matter at work?

A good analogy is to say that culture is what infuses all decision making, all actions, and all results.

It’s the way that we choose what is right and wrong, what we should be doing with our time, and how we should be doing it. It's how we should treat other people around us and what's acceptable and not acceptable. And as a result, it's no surprise that when you get great cultural norms, you often get great results from what otherwise would have been a very difficult business or a very difficult market segment or very challenging situations.

Culture is inseparable from decision-making and results. My belief is that if you don’t define a company culture and then live up to it and represent it and infuse it into processes (both formal and informal), a culture will develop anyway. It's just an unspoken culture, a secret culture where you, as an employee or someone new joining the company, have to figure out what the norms are. You have to figure out what the culture is.

"There's no good reason to have a secret culture. You should try and formalize it and make it transparent."

Whose responsibility is culture in the workplace?

Ultimately the CEO, just like everything else. But for myself and many other CEOs, we don't think of ourselves as superheroes who can do everything.

It behooves us to take some of that burden off of ourselves and to delegate. Culture is ultimately my responsibility. However, I hold all of you responsible — that is, your executive team, your entire management group, and individual contributors who are leaders inside the company — for maintaining and setting this culture with me. It absolutely should be a team effort.

How important are core values to workplace culture?

Core values can be a hugely important part of the culture when they are expressly written, very clearly defined, and lived daily by the vast majority of the team. But there's also plenty of companies where the core values are written on the wall and talked about in an annual meeting and that’s all they mean, right? The actual culture has very little to do with what those value statements are and the company largely rejects them.

Values are a compass, but none of us are always traveling north, right? We're weaving our way back and forth and hopefully we pay attention to that guiding light and stick to it. But you're always a little off course. Everybody is. Sometimes you're way off course and hopefully you can course-correct.

Rand Fishkin leaving Moz

How did Moz develop core values?

We used a pretty formal process. I described it in the book but it comes from Jim Collins' book, Good to Great. He has a worksheet you can get off his website.

You sit together with your team, or whomever you decide is involved in the values discussion, and you all write down and prioritize things that are very meaningful to you and that you think should be represented at the company. Then you collate them together and aggregate them and you see where there's a lot of agreement and where there's disagreement. Then you reconcile those things and you publish this document.

Moz was very tiny when we did this. I think there were eight of us? So, super early in the company's life. And the person who put together the document was actually my wife, Geraldine. She took all the survey results and all the exercise booklets from the eight of us, reconciled those all together, and put together this acronym, TAGFEE (Transparent, Authentic, Generous, Fun, Empathetic, Exceptional).

There was something magical about that. You could feel it right from the day we published TAGFEE to when we started talking about it. Especially the first seven years at Moz after that had some early-stage startup magic to them, where you feel like you're part of a really special team. People maintained friendships for decades after that, a lot of those people wanted to work together again, and they want to try and find environments like those early Moz days. Yeah, I give Geraldine a ton of credit for nailing that.

How early should companies establish core values?

With culture, it's the earlier the better, right? The earlier you set these norms and the more you can give yourself a little bit of forgiveness when you stray from them, or when you have to make some changes, the better. Like, “oh, we're 50 people now. This cultural value of everybody always knows what's going on with everybody else, unfortunately we gotta chuck it.” I wrote about this in the book as well.

It took us far too long — years too long — to do away with that practice of trying to be transparent about what every team is doing to every other team. It's not that important. Transparency actually ended up obfuscating the big picture of the company, making it very frustrating to figure out why what you were doing was important and how it fit in the picture.

Rand at SMXL Milan

What’s the difference between transparency vs honesty?

Honesty is saying things that are only true. You are not giving falsehoods. However, I think honesty can easily be very, very misleading and can also be very partial.

Transparency is telling the whole truth. Telling the why of the truth and the how of the truth. Being more upfront than you need to be. Not only answering questions but imagining what the other questions might be around those answers and making that information readily available.

How do you institutionalize core values within workplace culture?

"When culture and values work together, they are the architectural blueprints for the decisions people make around their work."

I think about culture and values infusing decision-making even at the very granular level of product design. But it should also happen in how you do interviewing and hiring and onboarding, how you run executive team meetings, how you run your quarterly cycles, and how you do your board reporting and so on.

Did you vet that behavioral culture fit during the hiring process?

Yes-ish. In the early years it was very much an intuitive judgment call. In later years it became slightly more formalized and certainly as I get later in my career I plan to make it much more formalized. I’ve actually seen a lot more success with more formalized hiring practices and more structured ways at getting at the real truth behind these cultural issues.

The nice part is, as the company grows you can make culture and values the primary aspect of what you hire on and make skill proficiency secondary. It seems counterintuitive to most folks but the way to think about it is, skill proficiency can rise rapidly no matter the age of the person or how long they've been with the company. Skill proficiency is something that you can train and improve quickly for someone who is passionate about the work and the team and wants to improve.

That's not that big a challenge but the reverse is so difficult as to being next to impossible. Maybe half a dozen times through hundreds of people I've worked with have I ever seen someone really shift their cultural attitudes, beliefs, and values. And a few of those were in the wrong direction. So yeah, I’m a big believer in prioritizing that culture fit and figuring out whether this is a person who values the same things and we share those beliefs. If so, this will be a relationship that works.

Rand Fishkin book signing

Did you have a set process for holding people accountable?

So, accountability is notably absent from TAGFEE, which created quite a bit of a challenge for us. If you want to have a culture and values that work, you absolutely must hold people accountable. But Moz had this undercurrent — almost an invisible part of the culture — of linking the E in TAGFEE (Empathy, our most important value) to a near infinite amount of forgiveness. That was probably a big mistake.

In fact I would argue it's still a big mistake. I think some of that continues to infuse Moz's culture. It’s always been a company where there's not a lot of accountability for either poor performance culturally or poor performance in work. Sometimes it was awesome. Sometimes it meant that someone would come in and they could mess up a few times and they could learn. They could get better and they would turn into the most remarkable employees and team members.

So it had huge positives but it also had negatives, which is true of any cultural aspect. There are negative and positive aspects to any value. But that was a really hard one. I don't know that we ever got great at it. Certainly not while I was there.

I think it takes a certain amount of very careful intuition, just a sense for whether this is a person who's going to learn and grow from these experiences, or this is a person who's gonna repeatedly make these mistakes and cause problems and I need to let them go early.

One of the problems you see is if someone isn’t living up to cultural norms and values, they will drag down the entire team with them. Even if their individual performance is good, the rest of the team will perform poorly because they're around.

Why is psychological safety so important?

A work environment where psychological safety is created is one where you can be open and truthful about both your professional and personal life in vulnerable ways and there will be no negative consequences for that.

Google published a bunch of research on this and the New York Times did a big piece about it. Essentially Google was looking for predictors of their most successful teams; the teams that produced the best results, best growth, best products, most measurable improvements. Statistically speaking, they expected it to be things like the college you went to, your grades, your SAT scores, how you did in the interviews at Google, your ability to code, the number of meaningful lines of code written. Every statistic they could possibly look at.

And they found that none of these correlated with performance. The only thing that correlated well with teams that outperformed other teams was psychological safety. Kind of awesome! That's a beautiful thing to imagine that human beings are so reactive to our environments that it doesn't matter if we’re the best in the world at what we do — if we work with a bunch of assholes, our performance goes to shit. Right?

"Maybe a bit crass, but that's the fundamental statement of it. Work with assholes, work goes to shit."

It sounds so simple!

I mean if it were easy, we would all do it, right? We would have this nailed already.

I have a lot of empathy for leaders and teams who haven't been able to build those environments. I will say it's so much easier when you’re small. When you have two to 20 people, those environments are much easier to create. Abusive environments are also much easier to create when you’re small, so we should be careful of that, too. If it's broken at ten people, oh it’s going to be broken at 100 and at 500.

My best advice to founders is if you start building that culture early, you can ride it a long way. If the first 20 people in your organization know that truth, behave that way, and work hard at it all the time, you can build something special, even to scale.

Sparktoro co-founders Rand Fishkin and Casey Henry

Sparktoro Co-Founders Rand Fishkin + Casey Henry

What lessons from Moz are you taking forward to Sparktoro?

Everything that's in Lost and Founder is very top of mind. A few things that are really big for us are not launching a product too early, not feeling pressured to put out a crappy early version, or MVP, but rather privately testing and optimizing. Getting something in excellent shape before we release it and have lots of people look at it.

We're also pretty passionate about trying to avoid a lot of the financial and cultural overhead too early. Unlike most startups, we raised 1.3 million and we hired no one, so our expenses are incredibly low. Our current burn gives us about four more years of runway but we're not going to use all that.

It’s more of a small business approach of getting to profit as quickly as possible and be very thrifty in the meantime, rather than the reverse of that — the startup way of spend fast to grow fast. Very culturally different.

SparkToro was created to help people do better marketing. Specifically, they want to assist organizations of all kinds to quickly and accurately identify where their audience spends time and pays attention, so marketing efforts can be better targeted and more effective. They think it sucks that so much of web marketing today is “buy ads on Facebook and Google.” That duopoly makes marketing less creative, less interesting, and less fruitful. It’s great for Google and Facebook’s bottom line, but that’s where the benefit ends.

Sparktoro’s vision is to help people do better marketing by making the publications, people, and sources that influence any audience more transparent.

Rand Fishkin runs most of the show at SparkToro. He was formerly co-founder and CEO of Moz, co-founder of Inbound.org, and author of Lost and Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he does have a bit of a chip on his shoulder, and is deeply passionate about making SparkToro a great company (at least, by his own peculiar standards).

Read more conversations with smart business leaders in our Two Beers interview series.

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