The story of how we uncovered the Red Hat values

One of the first things many new employees notice when they step inside Red Hat is how deeply held our corporate values are within our walls and how much they impact behavior within the company. The values aren’t just words to most Red Hat folks, and they show up in conversations and in actions on a daily basis. Today we probably take for granted that it has always been that way.

The four Red Hat values, in balance.

But it wasn’t. Back in 2002, I was one member of a team tasked with figuring out Red Hat’s corporate values. At that time, the company was still pretty small– about 500-600 employees.

I must admit at first I was pretty jaded about the whole corporate values business. The concept of corporate values made me think of those Successories motivational posters with a photo of a bear in the middle of a stream with a fish in his mouth and a word like “ACHIEVEMENT” in all caps at the bottom. Or whatever. Most corporate values systems didn’t seem authentic to me or were just plain lame.

The values team was made up of a cross section of folks from across Red Hat: Sean Witty, who did biz dev and M&A; Mark Cox, a security guru who is still at Red Hat; Jeremy Hogan, one of the original Red Hat community managers but who at the time was working in support; Paul Salazar, who I’ve written about before in this blog here; Jonathan Opp, who is still in the Red Hat brand team and did a lot of the original writing of the values descriptions; and myself.

We quickly decided we didn’t want Red Hat to end up with just some lame words to put on posters. We wanted to do this values stuff right.

Paul Salazar knew Jim Collins from Stanford, and encouraged each of us to read Collins’s book Built to Last (which is one of the Top 10 Books behind Dark Matter Matters). In it, Collins talks about the characteristics common to great, enduring corporations. According to him, the most important thing great companies shared was having deeply held values and core purpose. From the book:

“Again, to reiterate the key finding from our Built to Last research, the fundamental distinguishing characteristic of the most enduring and successful corporations is that they preserved a cherished core ideology while simultaneously stimulating progress and change in everything that is not part of their core ideology. Put another way, they distinguish their timeless core values and enduring core purpose (which should never change) from their operating practices and business strategies (which should be changing constantly in response to a changing world).”

Collins further says that enduring corporate values can’t just be made up on the spot by a bunch of executives sitting in a room. Instead, the values are already deeply held within the company– you have to uncover or discover them.

We took that to heart, and began a process of asking people throughout the company what they thought was most core to Red Hat. We did a survey, of course, but we also did many in-depth one-on-one interviews, especially focusing on people who had been at the company for a long time, and we talked to people at every level.

Collins was right– the values emerged. Although the exact words we heard weren’t always the same, four concepts began to appear: Freedom, Courage, Commitment, and Accountability (see the descriptions below, or download the Red Hat Story book).

Descriptions of the Red Hat values from the Red Hat Story book.

Freedom was a bit scary to some people. The idea of freedom being a core value in a corporate setting? Yikes. We got questions from the muckety-mucks like “if freedom is a value, what’s to stop someone from declaring they have the freedom to not show up for work?”

The answer? Freedom is balanced out by another value– accountability. People do have a great deal of freedom at Red Hat (in fact, things like memo-list scare many neewbies), but when we are at our best, this freedom is kept in check by accountability– to each other, to our partners and customers, and to our shareholders.

This idea of the values in balance became the key (and the picture at the top of this post does a nice job of illustrating the idea of balance). Sometimes I’ve observed the company teetering too far toward freedom. Sometimes we sway too far toward accountability. But in my time here, I’ve almost always seen us come back to equilibrium.

I think this balance between freedom and accountability is the #1 cultural factor that allowed Red Hat to avoid two traps I’ve seen many open source companies get snared by over the years. On one hand, some companies in the dot bomb era gorged themselves on freedom (free snacks and air hockey, oh my!) and forgot to remain accountable to their shareholders and customers. On the other hand, some companies sold out their core belief in open source freedoms to chase a few quick bucks and lost their soul (and community) in the process.

Seven years after the values were first uncovered, Red Hat continues to keep that delicate balance between freedom and accountability intact, and we are a better company for it.

So that’s my recollection of how Red Hat discovered its values. If anyone else who was around at the time wants to weigh in with their thoughts and memories, please feel free to share them below.

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.


5 thoughts on “The story of how we uncovered the Red Hat values

  1. hi chris,

    just came across your blog (thanks to freshly pressed) and really enjoying it. Some excellent advice and ideas. Keep up the good work.

    Stu (

    Posted by stunoss | October 28, 2011, 2:05 am


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