At Credit Karma, shared values produce better work

Credit Karma foregrounds its core values—helpfulness, ownership, empathy, and progress—everywhere. That makes it a place where "people tilt their heads."
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Everyone adheres to personal values, consciously or unconsciously. Our values work as lenses through which we assess beliefs or behaviors we witness in the world. Our values also influence the shape of our own actions in the world. Everyone has them, and no two people have the exact same set of values. That's because our values are entwined with our experiences; they're how we come to understand what matters most to us. Our daily experiences hone and clarify our values, and in turn, our values drive our decisions.

When individuals join together in organizations, value systems also combine—and, often, collide. So understanding the ways that common value systems emerge, grow and change over time is important for maintaining a strong organizational culture.

At Credit Karma, we believe that coworkers holding similar values produce better work. This isn't to say that diversity of experiences and identities isn't valuable; in fact, when diverse groups come together around shared values, it's the best work of all. But we believe that people work better when they expend less effort trying to "convert" one another to personal values and more time working in the service of commonly held beliefs.

At Credit Karma, four values infuse everything we do: helpfulness, ownership, empathy and progress. In this article, we'll explain how and why we arrived at those core values—and how we're reinforcing them as we grow.

Credit Karma's values

Growing a company means more than simply increasing headcount. New hires bring a new set of values to the organization when they join, and they're likewise influenced by the cultural values of the group they join. The Tuckman model of group development explains how this process typically works. This model describes four primary phases of groups coming together with a common purpose:

Forming: A team forms and starts discovering the challenges and opportunities of the group, and agreeing on the goals and how to achieve them. The values of the individuals in the forming team begin mixing together at this point, leading to the next phase.

Storming: Group members start to form opinions about the character and integrity of the other participants; it is the crucible of value alignment. Differences of opinion can arise as group members begin to assess one another's values and how they relate to their own. Some may find the same value means different things; others might discover commonality among seemingly diverse values.

Norming: The group has begun to resolve the differences that arise during the storming phase, and the group develops a sense of comradery and commonality.

Performing: Group norms and roles have been established; group members are motivated, knowledgeable and aligned on their common values; with little or no supervision or friction, they focus on and achieve their common goals.

Our common values should not only support our day-to-day operations, but should scale with our growth.

At Credit Karma, we've seen firsthand this model in action. Credit Karma has grown rapidly over the past several years, from a few hundred employees to more than 800. To support this level of growth, Credit Karma management decided it was time to introduce a common set of core company values on which everyone could align, believing that a clear understanding of those values helps Karmanauts understand how to make the best possible decisions. Our common values should not only support our day-to-day operations, but should scale with our growth.

Credit Karma has adopted the following four values as core to our beliefs of how we can best work together as coworkers, partners and members toward our shared mission of making financial progress accessible to everyone.

1. Helpfulness

  • Asking for help is seen as a sign of strength.
  • We help each other grow by giving and receiving feedback.
  • We make time to help others succeed.

2. Ownership

  • We accept personal accountability for our work and drive projects to completion.
  • We clarify ownership, and if there is no owner, we step up and own it.
  • We enable ownership by granting decision authority and providing the tools to effect change.

3. Empathy

  • We listen before we react.
  • We always assume positive intent.
  • We actively seek to find common ground.

4. Progress

  • We align on what progress means, how to measure it and our shared goal.
  • We break big milestones into small pieces so that we can learn faster and move faster.
  • We have a bias toward action: We go for quick wins, keep iterating and keep trying.

We didn't start with these four; we experimented, refined, and iterated toward the core four values over the course of about 10 months. There was much discussion and feedback from the organization during this time.

Values in action

At Credit Karma, management skills and behaviors are tied specifically to company values; the values are the lenses through which we assess behaviors. In fact, a core tenet of being a leader involves embracing and viewing problems and solutions through the lens of those values.

Managers are expected to align their values with the company values. These expectations translate into a set of actions that apply in most situations.

Feedback: Help someone improve and become the best version of themselves

Coaching: Help colleagues set and achieve their goals

Expectations: Provide clarity on what's expected and what to work toward

Supervision: Practice frequent and open communication

Development: Help team members work on their strengths and gaps, and achieve their goals

Scaling our values

Visibly including these values in the hiring process greatly increases the chances of selecting candidates who complement and thoughtfully add to the core culture of the company.

Underpinning the values system that Credit Karma has adopted is the Credit Karma University (CKU) program, which enables the effective distribution and education involved in making the values a core part of the culture at the company.

Credit Karma University is our internal employee education program. Each trimester, we offer on-site, instructor-led classes, along with other opportunities for learning—such as Department Downloads, Lunch & Learns, Karma Talks, Mentorship and Salons.

Our curriculum is designed to encourage employees to explore new topics, develop current skills, challenge themselves and learn from one another. We want people to tilt their heads—to be open to new perspectives and always to be curious.

Hiring with values in mind helps Credit Karma build a cultural foundation that is solid, stable and scalable. Interviewing is one of the best ways we have of finding folks who will uphold our values and scale our operations across the company. Visibly including these values in the hiring process—and ensuring that everyone involved in the interview process is aligned with them—greatly increases the chances of selecting candidates who complement and thoughtfully add to the core culture of the company.

As we continue to grow our employee base, maintaining our unique values and culture is crucial to keeping Credit Karma an awesome place to work.

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Jim has been engineering software since 1975. He is a technical writer and content developer in the Knowledge Management group at Credit Karma. He worked in mainframe assembler in the 70's, built some of the early word processing and workstation software in the 80's, was a Smalltalk developer on Wall Street in the 90's, and has been building web apps on Ruby/Rails since 2007.
Krispy Uccello has been working in the technology sector for over 20 years. Recently moving into the financial technology sector, Krispy is leading the developer relations and knowledge management strategy at Credit Karma as an engineering manager.

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