Lead with your values

Yesterday the folks at Basecamp decided to make some changes. Their goal was to streamline the organization to remove politics and paternalistic ethos from inside the company while still enabling its employees to have a voice outside the company.

When I was in college I had a professor who talked like this. He believed that companies weren’t responsible to the community in which they existed and the world in which they sold products. I believe this was an outcropping of the 1980s Reagan “win at all costs” mentality for businesses, the “greed is good” Gordon Gecko ethos, which in and of itself was a reaction the late 60s and 70s hippy culture.

I work at Nike now and have for the last two years. Nike is a company of this hippy era. Nike is a company that leads with its values. There are many people that work at Nike that believe strongly in those values and there are others that work at Nike despite those values, but I can tell you for certain that those values are strong and at the center of what Nike tries to do. Does it always get it right? No, but I do believe it tries to live up to them. For example when Black Lives Matter protests started last year, a lot of people were expecting statements from companies dictating where they stood on the issue. No one questioned where Nike stood.

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the founders and owners of Basecamp, just abdicated this responsibility at Basecamp. Their goal is to make the company stand for nothing and let the people who work there stand for things instead. I don’t know their reasoning but I can guess. It seems like it would be a good idea as at the end of the day internal discord can tear a company apart. In this day and age of polarized politics, having employees across the spectrum is difficult. The company needs to get its work done and it can’t do this if political polarization is creating a culture of dysfunction.

There’s a simple truth to the founding of every product: you want a strong reaction one way or the other. It’s good if people hate your product and it’s good that people love your product. The death trap is in the middle, where people have no feeling at all.

While Jason and David are trying to build a culture of tolerance they are actually doing the opposite. People don’t just need strong feelings about the products they buy, they also need them about the companies in which they work. Jason and David are steering Basecamp to the middle.

Politics is life. We make political decisions every day in our personal lives and our professional ones. There is no way to hide from these. Home Depot, Coca-Cola and other Georgia-based companies didn’t want to wade into the deep end of politics but were forced to when the Georgia legislature passed new voting measures a few weeks ago that many believe (including me) will restrict voting for minorities. This worst place to be for a big company is reacting to what’s happening around them. They just don’t move fast enough to make these statements unless they are clearly held positions from the beginning.

As a company leader, we can’t run from these issues. Especially socially, these issues permeate the world in which we work. How does Basecamp feel about under-represented groups as engineers? What does it think about the LGBTQIA+ population and its impact on its company culture? Where does the company stand on racism and hate?

There is no way that Jason and David don’t have strong opinions on these topics, and there is no way the employees of Basecamp don’t have strong opinions on these topics. But these are indeed political issues that impact Basecamp.

The reality is that companies that don’t lead with their values will have values thrust upon them. And that’s definitely one place I wouldn’t want to be.