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.
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:
Top management experts are now acknowledging the importance of creating forums and contexts inside corporations that allow peer review, transparency, and powerful natural hierarchies to flourish. Here’s one great post by Gary Hamel from earlier this year that Iain Gray pointed out today. We’ve had an open forum exactly like this at Red Hat for a very long time. We call it memo-list.
When any new employee comes into Red Hat, memo-list is one of the first great shocks to the system. Memo-list itself is not some technological marvel of a collaboration tool– it is just a simple, old skool mailing list where any Red Hat employee can post an email message that goes out to virtually every employee in the company. That’s 3000+ folks.
Memo-list has been a hot issue inside the walls of Red Hat since before I joined ten years ago. Folks tend to either love it or hate it.
Some people are shocked by the fact that any employee can publicly challenge a post by an executive or even the CEO in an email to memo-list (and they do). Some people are annoyed by the discussions that appear over and over, year after year. Some people view it as idle chitchat and a waste of time.
But some people view it as the backbone of the Red Hat culture. A place where the power of meritocracy is nurtured. Where the employees force transparency, openness, and accountability. Where peer review makes for better ideas (after all, given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow).
I love memo-list, warts and all (I think Gary Hamel would like it too). In my view, it is the single most important thing that differentiates the Red Hat culture from most other corporate cultures.