We chat with Sarah Bird, the CEO of Moz about their core values, and how it defines everything they do. We also talk about what role Sarah plays as the CEO in maintaining the culture.
Jacob Shriar: Hello, everyone. I’m Jacob Shriar, Growth Manager at Officevibe. And today, I’m honored to be joined by my guest, Sarah Bird, the CEO of Moz. Sarah, thanks so much for being here with me.
Sarah Bird: Thank you for inviting me, Jacob. This is great.
Jacob Shriar: Awesome. So before we start talking about Moz and the culture there, and what an incredible place it is to work, maybe if you can just give our audience a little bit of a background on you. How you got into this role? How you kind of got started in the industry? Really, any background will be great.
Sarah Bird: Great. Thank you so much for having me. I love talking about culture and it’s been really close to my heart. I could talk about it all day long. So feel free to interrupt me if I’m getting off track here, because I care about it deeply.
My background is in law actually. I’m a trained lawyer; I went to law school and that’s actually how I got connected with Rand, who is the co-founder. And after I went to law school, I practiced law for awhile, and my experience at the law firm is one of the things that really got me committed to having a values-driven business. I really learned to care a lot about company culture.
My experience working in the law firm was that there were lots of very talented people, they were smart and they were talented, right? So they were capable, they were good people, they had good values. No one there was a bad person, right? They all really cared about success of the firm and clients. They wanted the clients to succeed, too.
Early in my career I would have thought, well those three things should be enough to have a great office culture. And it was really disappointing and frustrating to experience that you can have all these things; someone can be smart and good, and care to succeed, and still have an office culture where conflict wasn’t handled well, where people would leave crying, people didn’t feel empowered. People didn’t know what was going on, and therefore, were like nervous and not trusting of others. And it became very difficult to get work done and a lot of people would leave unhappy.
So that was my first insight into how come this is so hard? What else could be done? And something I look back on sometimes with regret. I was so young in my career that I didn’t know how to affect change, and so I bailed. Basically, I gave notice at the firm and decided to move on without really trying to change the culture.
Again, I don’t think at that time I knew enough. I didn’t have enough change management skills, leadership skills, or even what specifically the problem was to be able to do it. So I left the law firm and, Rand and Gillian co-founded what was then SEOmoz, is now Moz, and said, “Hey, you should come and work at Moz.” And that was definitely a switch from working at a law firm to a technology company, but Rand and I had a friendship, and I always admired him. I love technology; I love learning and new challenges. So I thought, yeah, I want to go work there. I’m going to give this a shot.
So that was really the beginning of a whole new era of my life. I’m the CEO now, and I started as General Counsel and became Chief Operations Officer and President and joined the Board. And now I’m the CEO, and I really feel like I’ve found my place. I’m an entrepreneur at heart, and it’s funny that I would never have guessed that in college. I would never have guessed that in law school, right? And it took having the opportunity to really discover my full potential and what I’m passionate about.
And I took those lessons around new culture that I had at the law firm. And with Rand and Gillian in these early days, we knew that we all cared about this and wanted to do it right. So we had a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of learnings and work to do which we can get into in the rest of this conversation about how to actually make that happen. And that work is ongoing today, because no one is ever perfect, and no culture is ever perfect. But that was sort of the kernel of, okay, there’s more to this than just having good people who are smart at their jobs.
Jacob Shriar: Very interesting. Yeah, a very cool background. It’s a cool story. I’d love to talk to you about the core values. You guys have a cool acronym for your core values called “TAGFEE.” You can if you want say what each thing stands for. But I’d love to really talk more about sort of when you defined these core values, sort of why you defined those specific values. If you could just give us more contexts into the process creation, let’s say, of the core values thing. That would be really cool.
Sarah Bird: So TAGFEE; TAGFEE is how we talk about our core values at Moz. And our core values are not the same things as our culture, because culture is how decisions get made every day at Moz, it’s behaviors we’d live by and work by. But the core values let us judge, whether or not, we think the culture is healthy or not; whether we’re on the right path, whether we’re doing the right things. And TAGFEE stands for transparency, authenticity, generosity, fun, empathy, and being truly exceptional, which we do. So we needed a funny word to memorize them because there are so many. We have a lot of values. We’re values driven people.
So the start of TAGFEE, as I mentioned, I transitioned from law and came on as general counsel and I was the eighth employee, and we were just starting this new phase of our lives at SEOmoz, from a consulting business to a marketing technology business. And I tell you that those early days are so hard, and we had no clue what we were doing. We were starting out, we were well intentioned, but we didn’t know how to make software. We didn’t know how to hire, we didn’t know how to fire, we didn’t know how to price, and all this stuff that you have to learn to be successful in business.
We were just at the beginning of our career and our journey. And so there were a lot of tough choices; tough choices in the team and who the team is going to stick with us through this transition. There were tough choices in how we want to operate and make decisions, and what’s important to us.
And I remember, I started in November, and it was the summer of 2008 and it was just hard. We were having board meetings that were pretty intense, because we were like, “You don’t know how to do this.” And one of my board members, Michelle Goldberg, who is fantastic and a real mentor to me, suggested in a board meeting that we do some core values work.
And Rand and I, both were kind of like, “Wait, we have real problems to work on right now. We have big decisions we need to make like about what we’re going to ship and how we’re going to price it, and who’s on the team and who’s off the team, what office we’re moving to get all these big decisions for us. And you want us to take some time out to do this sort of fluffy work?” When we didn’t know we didn’t have values; we’re all good people, so why do we have to do it, right?
And I really appreciate Michelle and her leadership, because she knows when to push and when not to push; and she knows how to push. And she pushed us on this, and said, “You know, this is work that has been beneficial,” and she listed off all these companies like, “Walt Disney does this, NASA does this, IBM does this,” and she went on, and on, and on, about all these really successful companies, of all different kinds of industries that do it, and listed all these books that we should read through. And we’re like, “Okay, okay, okay, we’ll give this a shot.”
So that was the first time in this period of real intense heated debate, and where we took time out and said, “Well, what do we all really care about? What’s most important for us? What are some lines we don’t want to cross? And we did this, and at that time the whole office, which was still small. We were probably like 15 people or something, so you could easily go around to everyone in the office and have this conversation, right?
And some things came out right away as obvious values. For example, transparency; transparency came out and it was like, “Well, we clearly need transparency because we talk about it all the time.” Generosity came out right away, because we were always wanting to do what’s best for the employee, what’s best for the community and our customers. And then other things got in there like quality and respect, which all sound like good things, right? Today, no one wants to make crappy products, and people want to be respectful.
But interestingly, after we went through this process the first time and we had like maybe six core values; we’d lived with those for about a year or so and realized that these really actually are helping us. They are helping us when we had a really difficult conversation or a choice to make. We can go back to the values; remember that we have the same goals and the same outcome, and that we share this passion. And it helps guide the decision making.
So it was working for us, but it still didn’t feel exactly like we had the right core values. So about a year later, which would have been 2009, we decided to go back and kind of do a refresh and sort of audit with our team that was bigger, probably 22 people or something. And we said, “Okay, what are these values are we living up to and which aren’t we? What’s missing in our core values and what’s not?” And that’s when we came to TAGFEE. We took out respect and added empathy, and authenticity instead, because that felt for us closer than like respect is something that you might show to someone you don’t really even know, just as sort of an elder, and we really wanted empathy.
We wanted that connection to the human spirit. And we wanted them to be able to be true to themselves while still being respectful, honest, and kind, and walk in other people’s shoes. So we added those. We added fun, because we clearly were like judging candidates and ourselves on is this still fun? Are we having a good time? Is this someone I want to hang out with when s**t gets real? So we added fun.
We took out quality, which is in a lot of ways embarrassing and a hard decision to make. But we had to recognize in our audit that we actually don’t prioritize quality; it’s not authentic to how we really behaved. We would rather move really fast and launch something, and have it not be fantastic yet, but at least it’s out there and delivering some value, and then try to get better at it over time. But we certainly prioritized and rethink frequently than building something that is the most awesome, most amazing, most perfect thing.
So eventually we got to TAGFEE as you know it today, and it’s been an amazing tool for us in ways that I would never have imagined. It helps us not only resolve decisions, or make decisions, but it helps bring the team closer together, because when you’re feeling that alienation and questioning someone’s motives you get back to the core values.
It helps us recruit great people, because we’re really loud and proud about TAGFEE. And it’s a virtuous cycle, so we tend to attract people who care about that as well. And we just get held to a higher standard in a way that I really like. That’s how I want to run my business, my life; it’s how I judge success. Am I succeeding? Am I executing in a way that is TAGFEE? So it’s working really well.
Jacob Shriar: Very, very interesting. Thank you so much for going into so much detail there, and really giving the back story and everything, too. We recently went through an exercise at our company, really defining our core values, so I find it super interesting to hear kind of the back story on how you guys did it. What else I find super cool. This is something that we never, I guess didn’t do yet, or we may not ever do, but I was always under the impression that once you defined core values they are sort of set in stone. And I’ve never heard of an example of anyone changing their core values.
And what always sort of confused me or whatever was how much do these things have to set in stone, because everything else is tied back to the core values. Like you said, it’s how you hire; it’s how you fire, etcetera. So it doesn’t sound like you made drastic changes in all honesty, but still I find it interesting that you went through some iteration and some changes. So that’s very, very cool. But you talked about the recruiting and the hiring process at Moz. I’d love to dive a little bit deeper into that. Can you maybe share some of the secrets that you use to hire the best of the best? Are there any sort of tips and advice that you can maybe share with our audience on kind of what’s the best thing to do for hiring?
Sarah Bird: Yes, it’s big. Hiring is the most strategic thing we do, because our business is a knowledge business. It’s based on people, and it is harder to be a Mozer than it is to work at other places. Because at Moz it’s not enough just to be technically fantastic, and it’s not enough to just be culturally fantastic. You have to be both. And so it’s a really high bar, and something we struggle with all the time.
Some of the things that I feel like we do right, we are so open about TAGFEE and we talk about it all the time. We talk about it on our blog; we talk about it on the website. I talk about it in most of the interviews I do, and so does everyone else on the team. It’s something that has actually taken on a life of its own outside of Moz even. There are other companies around the world that have identified TAGFEE as something that is similar to their core values, and they’ve actually adopted TAGFEE. And you can even get these little TAGFEE bracelets, like the Livestrong ones, or some that are like TAGFEE that are floating out there. It’s really cool, right? To see people identify with, “Yeah, that’s how I feel about my business.”
One thing we’ve done right is certainly make sure you are out there and you talk about it, and you invite people to hold you accountable to it, because that message has to get out in the world to where your audience is. That’s part of pulling in the right people, and it may not be that the candidate themselves hears about TAGFEE first. But it could be that a marketer in your community is like, “Wow, they’re really serious about TAGFEE and that sounds awesome,” and they talk about it all the time. And I can tell they’re really working on it.
So when I have a job description come up, maybe for an engineer or a project manager, that marketer who knows me might say like, “Wait, my really good friend is a project manager, and I think she would love TAGFEE.” So TAGFEE doesn’t necessarily just have to be the connection with the candidate, but it is something that sticks out in our whole community and customers’ mindset. That makes them want to invite their friends and family to come and work for us, because they’re just attracting people who care about the same things we do, right?
The best part of it is this virtuous cycle. And then the second thing in the interview process, I ask questions about culture. I ask questions like, “Why do you want to come to Moz?” And I am really hoping one of the things they say is TAGFEE, or the culture. And if they don’t, that’s a yellow flag for me, for sure. Let me try to, in lawyer speak, rehabilitate the witness and come at another way for them to give them another chance for them to talk about TAGFEE. Sometimes it helps, right?
But I am looking for someone who says, “I am committed to this and I understand this is what makes you special, and I’m convinced that’s what I share with you.” Other things, and so not only just do they value it, I do ask questions that I hope get to part of whether they live the values or not, right?
It might be a question around who is the weirdest person you’ve ever worked with, and were they successful. And you’re like, “How does that relate? It actually really goes to authenticity for me and empathy, because I want someone who doesn’t say… A bad answer would be like, “Oh man, there’s this one weirdo in my office. He was totally nuts and he couldn’t get anything done because he was crazy.” That to me is someone who is not cool with people being their authentic selves, and is struggling with empathy.
A great answer would be like, “Oh man, there’s this one guy who used to wear purple every single day, and he grew his hair and dyed the beard purple. But you know what, he always got his stuff done on time and he showed up, and it all worked, you know. And that’s to me a sign that someone isn’t going to be judgmental, that they appreciate people who are authentic to themselves and can walk with empathy with other people; be empathetic towards other people, and their perspective.
Another example would be, do you feel lucky? Do you feel lucky? So a large part of the fun value in TAGFEE relates to optimism and attitude, and when you see your challenge you instantly go, “This always happens to me,” which is a sign of that sort of victim mode, you’re powerless, chip on your shoulder. Or do you tend to flip it around and be like, “Well, at least it didn’t happen last week when I would have been really screwed.” So there’s are these interesting little ways you can get into whether this person is more likely to be fun or not, based on their responses to questions like that, that are a little bit out of the box.
So there are a lot of things; or if you’re a C.F.O. or if I’m hiring a C.F.O. or someone for HR, which is typically in most organizations a very secretive organization because they have a lot of private data, the transparency is a big value for us; so I’ll ask a lot of questions about like, “Is there any data you wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with anyone in the company or put on the Internet?” And I want to see how they’re going to respond, right? Because I want to make sure they get transparency, and we put our financials on the Internet, because that’s how we roll. We really mean it, you know. And so there is stuff that’s more direct, and then there’s stuff may feel a little indirect in the questions.
Jacob Shriar: Those are some great examples; some are very, very good. I’d love to ask you, as the CEO, in terms of let’s say company culture, employee engagement. What are some of your concerns? Well, a two-part question, actually, and you can really take some time with this one. One, no company is perfect. Let me ask you what you think you guys get wrong, like you think you could really improve on?
And then number two, what are sort of some of your worries, your concerns that you think could potentially be a problem if this happens or something like that? I’d like to hear it right from the CEO.
Sarah Bird: Sure. One of the things that we really struggle with right now, and has been part of the struggle since we’ve actually scaled up to 70 people or so, and that’s transparency and communications, right? In the olden days, being transparent was really easy, because there were fewer brains you have to sync up, and you can just like literally turn chair around and say, “Hey guys, I wanted to let you know I have this project or I have a concern about it, what’s going on?” And you’re all sort of in real time, in the same geographic space, and you can get aligned.
And as we’ve reached new spaces and we have bigger teams, and the organization gets bigger, it becomes increasingly difficult to make sure that the right people get the information at the right time, without also overloading.
For example, one of the things we shifted to away from being able to roll around in your chair and have an all-company meeting, which you can’t do at 50 people even. We moved toward putting more email status out, so that you’re not stopping people in the middle of their flow, but you’re sending them an email on the status of this project or something, right? And that worked really well for awhile, and then we realized though we’d created email overload, where you could like spend 25% of your time just reading email status updates. And wow! That’s crazy, right? And not all of it is equally relevant to you, and it’s just cluttering up your inbox.
So a new strategy, for example, that we’ve shifted to is making sure that we have a well documented Internet, where all the data is there and available, but you don’t have to push it to everyone. But if they want it, they can see it, and changing status to like, “This is something you need to know right now, and here are more details on the Internet if you need it, if you care to find it,” right?
And so it’s a little bit of a flip where in the early days, for me, success and transparency meant everyone knew everything. And now, the new success metric for me is if they want to know they can find it, which is an important distinction. One is access, right? And the other one is like perfect mind share, which you just can’t have at a complex large organization. So that’s a shift.
And we still struggle though with making sure the right person gets the right information. And it’s not completely dialed in, because sometimes you don’t realize that that’s important to someone else. And so you didn’t notify them, it’s on the Internet but you didn’t let them know what was happening. So that’s still needs some work, and we’re still lean into that, like, “Oh man, I wish you had told me that was going on, because it impacts this,” you know. It happens, and it’ll probably always happen, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get better at it.
Other things that have shifted from a cultural perspective, so one of the things that I had to grieve over as a leader in an organization that is sort of small and is scaling to get big, right? In the early days, you have personal relationships with everyone, and you’re more likely to be similar because you’re probably recruiting from your friends, or from acquaintances. And in the early days it’s like, “What should we do. We all want to hang out. Well let’s go do Karaoke because we all really like Karaoke,” or “We’ll all go to a bar crawl in Freemont or something.”
But we’re much bigger and we’re very diverse, and we have people now at all different stages of their lives, and not everyone is going to want to go to Karaoke on Friday after work, right? Kids have to be picked up, or kids are older, I mean, just all kinds of stuff going on. So I had to let go of my definition of a good company and like, “I’m achieving culture,” is that everyone was everybody’s good friend, and move towards “We are a company that enjoys being collaborative, that has empathy, and is respectful and that shows up and how we get work done,” but it doesn’t have to mean that we’re all best friends and do everything together.
And my new thing that I’m trying to do from an employee engagement perspective is encourage people to form their own groups of shared interests, and not be threatened by it, right? Not everyone is going to want to go play chess, not everyone is going to want to go rock climbing, not everyone is going to want to do Karaoke and that’s okay. It’s sort of a shift in our own mindset that like, subcultures are good and healthy as long as they don’t contravene TAGFEE, right? And they don’t. They’re good.
So that’s a shift for sure, and I keep working through this balance as a leader of how much do I force people to come together across the organization and get to know each other, and how much do I just sort of let them organically find like-minded people, right? And the balance we have right now is, once a quarter we do an all-company fun event. For example, last week we did field day, which was pretty silly and everyone in the company is invited to go and hang outside all day, and do all the things you would expect, you know, carry an egg with a spoon, and water balloons, and just fun, silly stuff, right?
Or, we’ll go to the fair in the fall. I love the fair. I have fond memories as a kid getting a day off school and going to the county fair, and like looking at how big the pigs get and whatever. So we’ll do a fair day and you can bring your whole family, and we rent buses, and that’s a lot of fun. But you can’t do that all the time, and as a leader, I have to be like more chilled out, right? That we don’t all know each other and that’s good, and that’s okay.
Let’s see, what are some of the other things you were asking that we needed to work on? We need to get better at our remote teams, communicating with our remote teams in real time. And that’s an infrastructure issue, because web conferencing generally sucks, and to do it right is extremely expensive, right? To really get all the sound dialed in from all over the different places in the room, it’s very complicated. We need to get better at that.
Let’s see, some other things. Oh, this has been an issue from the beginning, and I suspect it will always be an issue. And it’s something that I’m working on very aggressively. And that is giving people feedback in real time. In order for TAGFEE to work, we need to share with each other the feedback right away. We need to share it in a very skilled manner. It doesn’t mean you can’t hurt someone’s feelings, because sometimes feedback even when very artfully given is going to hurt someone’s feelings.
But you have to do it with compassion, right? And those are real skills, and it’s not like riding a bicycle where once you learn it you’re good. It’s more like a muscle that you can atrophy if you don’t use it all the time, so it’s not the kind of thing that I can just flip a switch, have a two-hour seminar for everyone in the company on, “This is how you give and receive feedback. Good, you’re all experts!” You know, it’s something that you just have to continually push and remind each other to do.
And as a leader, I have to make sure I’m encouraging like, “Hey, before you come to me with any concerns, make sure you go talk to the stakeholders first. Go talk to the person who it matters first, and if that doesn’t work you should talk to me, but go give your feedback where it counts.” And that’s directly to your peer, or your boss, or whoever. And that’s something that never goes away, and is a constant challenge just in all of humanity, in all of our relationships; getting the courage and the skill to really give feedback and to disagree in a meaningful way that leaves relationship intact.
Jacob Shriar: Yeah, that was an incredible answer. Wow! Thank you for being so transparent. I guess you’re the living part of your TAGFEE right there. No, that was very, very cool. Honestly, it sounds like you guys really take culture very, very seriously. You’re really, even though you have a few issues, you’re working pretty hard at addressing them, and kudos to you for sharing that.
I think we’ll end it here, but I just want to thank you so much for taking some time out of your day to chat with me. And I want to thank Roger for making a special guest appearance. And hopefully, we can do this again sometime soon.
Sarah Bird: Thank you, Jacob. I had a lot of fun, and I appreciate it.
Jacob Shriar: Awesome. Great, take care.