At UpBuild, we talk a lot about our company values – the shared priorities that are the driving force behind our functioning well as a team. The ten of us all come from different backgrounds and have different lives, but these shared values come together to form a common understanding of what is “UpBuildy” to do.
I’ve worked at and with a lot of different businesses over the years, and many of them claim to have a set of company values in some form or another. However, it’s a lot easier to say what your values are (or, more commonly, what you wish they were) than it is to actually live by those values — and when a company doesn’t live by the values it purports to hold, the cognitive dissonance that creates for customers and team members alike can cause some real turmoil.
In the two-and-change years I’ve spent at UpBuild, I’ve been struck over and over again by how easy tough decisions and conversations become when you’re truly living your company values. The right decision, more often than not, becomes entirely obvious when we ask, “what’s the UpBuildy thing to do?” I thought I’d take our blog readers through our values one by one and talk about what they mean to us, and up first is the one I wrestled with the most before starting here: transparency.
Transparency at UpBuild
From our Mission and Values page:
Whether with clients, the team, or the general public, we default to transparency. We have no trade secrets. We’ll show the numbers. The only case where we’d be non-transparent is when that transparency would set unrealistic expectations or produce a negative outcome (sharing half-baked ideas before they’re ready, revealing salary information, or, of course, anything related to confidential client information).
There is No “Secret Sauce”
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that we’re constantly sharing the things we’re working on, and the new tactics we’ve figured out to do technical marketing better or more efficiently. While some agencies might see this as giving away the store for free, we really want to share what we’re doing with the SEO community. In part, this is just because we think it’s cool and want to nerd out with our fellow SEO nerds about cool stuff. A lot of the time, though, we come up with something cool and share it with the community, and someone else will take that basic methodology and build something even cooler on it. Collaborating makes us stronger as an industry.
At MozCon last week, Wil Reynolds from SEER Interactive challenged SEOs to share tactics with each other, so everyone can keep leveling up:
“The better my competitors are, the smarter I have to get.” Our whole industry is built on sharing with each other. @wilreynolds #MozCon
— Ruth Burr Reedy (@ruthburr) July 10, 2018
That spirit of sharing and continually challenging each other is one of my favorite things about working in SEO.
Transparency Builds Trust
We vote on every client because we want to make sure we’re only doing work for clients we’re excited and proud to work for, but we’ve found that being transparent about this process has an unexpected benefit: our clients get excited to work with us when they hear that we’re excited to work with them. Even when clients don’t pass the vote, they tend to respond positively to our being upfront about it.
That initial trust goes a long way toward making our engagements successful; a client who doesn’t trust us is less likely to implement our recommendations, which means they don’t see the results they wanted, which makes them trust us even less, and it’s a vicious circle. Being as transparent as possible with clients right off the bat feels like the right thing to do — but it’s also turned out to be a good business practice.
Once we’ve earned that trust, a culture of transparency helps us maintain it. Sometimes that means admitting our mistakes, or coming back to the drawing board with our clients when our original solution isn’t going to work. Occasionally, it even means proposing to clients that we draw down and have fewer hours in our ongoing retainer – we’re not taking people’s money if we don’t think we can provide value, which removes an existential burden for our team and makes our clients trust us even more.
Transparency Requires Trust
UpBuild really only works because of trust: like I said above, we have to have clients that trust us in order to get results, but we also have to have a team that trusts in UpBuild in order to do the best work.
Hiring people with existing agency experience often means that those people are coming aboard with some agency-related baggage. Many (though by no means all) marketing agencies overwork their teams, and any concerns about being able to complete that month’s allotted client tasks are met with a “Figure it out,” or, worse, insinuations that you’re just not committed enough to your work.
As I’m fond of telling the team, “I can’t help you if I don’t know there’s a problem.” Creating a culture where mistakes are met with anger or recriminations doesn’t challenge people to strive for excellence; it just means that they’re less likely to raise a flag if there’s a problem, and this can mean that serious problems go unnoticed and unchecked for way too long. I’ve seen this happen (and, let’s be honest, been the one trying to hide my mistakes) and it’s just a recipe for a miserable team and dissatisfied clients.
As leaders, we need to demonstrate that we can be trusted to help people when they have a problem, and respond reasonably to the all-too-human errors that everyone makes from time to time. It’s the only way to build the trust we need for our team members to feel comfortable being transparent about their needs.
A transparent culture also provides us the tools we need to make the most of our biggest resource: each other. Every single person at UpBuild (including Mike and me) has had times where they’ve come to the team and said “I’m stuck on this thing, do any of you have any ideas?” By making sure that UpBuild is a safe environment for people to be transparent about what they need to do their work, we’re helping everyone on the team do the best work possible, without worrying that the slightest mistake will bring the Eye of Sauron upon them.
Why We’re Not 100% Transparent
There are businesses that take “radical transparency” to a whole other level, and that’s awesome if that’s what works for them, but at UpBuild there are times when we decide that full transparency isn’t the right call. In the paragraph from our values page quoted above, we explain that we’ll be non-transparent “when that transparency would set unrealistic expectations or produce a negative outcome.”
Some people might argue that selective transparency is the same as not being transparent at all, and while I get that, I don’t agree. I think that transparency can be an important thing, but doesn’t have to be the only or the most important thing. After all, transparency is only one of our six values, and we don’t want to adhere to any one value to an extent that would cause us to betray any of the others.
Being values-driven is all about balance, and the value that I’m most often balancing transparency against is betterment. Is being transparent going to make anyone’s day (or their job, or their life) better? If not, it behooves us to find a better way to say it, or consider not saying it at all.
As a parent, I’ve encountered this great rubric for teaching children to be truthful without being rude: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it useful? It’s not enough to simply be transparent for transparency’s sake; we want to make sure the information we’re revealing is going to be valuable.
I think we’ve all encountered people who are real jerks, and when called on it, protest “I’m just being honest.” In the business world, unchecked transparency can result in people saying things like, “transparently, I think that’s a terrible idea.” Not only is a statement like that unkind, it also doesn’t provide any value to anyone — and it has a risk of destroying the very trust that we’re trying so hard to create. By balancing transparency with betterment (along with our other values, like pride, integrity, and purpose), we can be candid in ways that help each other, and our clients, do our best work.