When is the right time for a company to work on articulating its values? Given the stress that BlackRock, and every other organization on the planet, was under during the pandemic, it may not have seemed like the optimal time to take on a project as sweeping as revisiting our core principles. But that’s exactly what we did, and it turned out to be the best time to focus on who we are and what we stood for, because the crisis helped crystallize our thinking in a way that, in hindsight, might have been harder during quieter times.
The story for us begins in 2012, when a group of my colleagues and I led an effort to write down the BlackRock Principles. We are a 34-year-old company that has grown rapidly, and around that time, we had just passed the 10,000-employee mark and were approaching our 25th anniversary. We had done some very significant acquisitions, including of Merrill Lynch Investment Management and Barclays Global Investors. As we grew quickly, it became increasingly clear that the main vehicle we had used as an organization over the years to immerse new hires in our culture—through stories shared over countless dinners—wasn’t scalable.
That 2012 effort led to these principles:
- We are a fiduciary to our clients. We operate our business with a fiduciary mindset—which means putting our clients’ interests first. Their trust and confidence in us is our most valuable asset, and we seek to earn it every day.
- We are One BlackRock. We challenge ourselves—and each other—to collectively raise our game. The best solutions result from the ideas and contributions of a diverse team of partners.
- We are innovators. Continuous innovation helps us bring the best of BlackRock to our clients. This requires that we are respectfully anti-bureaucratic, that we challenge the status quo and are not afraid of failure.
- We are passionate about performance. We are passionate about our work and intensely focused on performing at the highest levels. We take emotional ownership of every aspect of the work we do.
Fast-forward to early February 2020, just prior to COVID-19 sweeping quickly across continents, and there was a growing recognition at our company that the words we used needed to be refreshed. So, we planned roughly a dozen workshops in different cities that would involve getting feedback from both senior and more junior groups of employees. The first sessions were going to be in London and Paris, and I was going to be joining both in late February. Everyone has a story about where they were when the world started shutting down because of COVID-19, and here’s mine: Fashion Week is normally a huge scene, but when I arrived in Paris, it was surprisingly quiet. And when I checked into my hotel, they asked me, “Mr. Goldstein, do you want a bottle of water?” I said, “No, thanks.” And then they asked, “Do you want a face mask?” And I said, “Why?” As I headed to my room, I made a mental note of a useful rule of life—when someone asks if you want a face mask, you should probably say yes.
Those workshops were put on hold as we dealt with the onset of the pandemic, because it became clear that the whole world was changing overnight. We told everyone to simply take what they needed from their offices—monitors, computers, headphones—so they could work from home, and we spent tens of millions of dollars on equipment to help them set up. At one point my wife, Abby, said to me, “Do you know what you’re doing?” And I said, “Clearly, I don’t know what I’m doing, but the good news is that no one does. This has never happened before. We’re good and making things up as we go.”
Our COVID-19 response was guided first and foremost by our focus on helping our employees and their families. Within days of the pandemic shutting down much of the world, we let the entire BlackRock family know not to worry about their jobs. During a time where there was more to worry about than anyone could have imagined, we wanted to make sure our employees had that comfort. I recall a one-week period that following summer when I awoke on a Tuesday to learn one of our employees in India had passed away from COVID-19 because he didn’t have access to a hospital. The next day, and the day after that, brought the same tragic news—that another one of our colleagues had passed away. We did everything we could to help, including shipping oxygen tanks to where they were needed most. Because we made the health and safety of our employees our top priority, the decisions we made were never hard, though executing them posed many challenges. We had a clear compass even though the path itself was unknown.
Also, around that time, we made the decision to restart our plan to refresh our principles, although those workshops would of course be virtual rather than in person. There was no shortage of reasons to keep that project on hold, but we decided that, if anything, there was no better time to work on our principles than when the company was dealing with a historic crisis. After all, we were continuing to hire during the pandemic, which presented challenges: How do we make sure those people—who for the most part had never actually met anyone else from BlackRock in-person nor set foot in our offices—have the same degree of emotional ownership as people who have been here their whole careers? And how do we build resiliency so that the company is stronger—with greater clarity about who we are and how we operate and work with each other—next year, and the following year, and the following year, no matter the environment and state of the world around us?
The crisis held up a kind of mirror to us, forcing us to distill into words and phrases who we were as an organization, what we stood for and what really mattered.
For a company whose culture has been primarily instilled through spending time together hanging out, the pandemic required that we profoundly change our approach. Although COVID-19 took away many of the tools that would normally have helped us work on rewriting our principles, in many ways it provided a tailwind, in that there was a widely shared and even elevated sense of their importance. The crisis held up a kind of mirror to us, forcing us to distill into words and phrases who we were as an organization, what we stood for and what really mattered.
To form the teams that would work on our principles, we selected a cross-section of people we knew to be high-performing, cultural ambassadors. As we began the process of revisiting our 2012 principles, it became clear that some things were missing from the original list, including emphasis on diversity and inclusion despite that being a priority for the firm. And some of the words and terminology that made sense in 2012 to our population back then felt dated now, especially given that the average age of employees at BlackRock is typically in the mid-30s. Some of the things that would have resonated with a 34-year-old in 2012 were different than what would resonate with a 34-year-old in 2020.
And as much as we were focusing on updating the principles, there were also bedrock notions that were not going to change, the most important being “One BlackRock.” All of our business is done in a fiduciary context, and that means our clients’ interests come first. And the way we achieve that is to operate as one company rather than as a collection of businesses. That requires a common language and communication platform, particularly as we were moving from, in effect, 80 offices around the world to 16,000 home offices. A key component of that commonality has been our Aladdin technology platform, which in many ways is a manifestation of that One BlackRock philosophy. Aladdin is our operating system and one of the most scaled platforms in the industry (as just one example, during the first week of the pandemic, our trading volumes were about 60 percent higher than any other peak we had seen, and because of Aladdin we were able to absorb that disruption seamlessly). That common language that comes from globally shared processes and technology really enables us to be location-agnostic.
In our virtual workshops, we let the discussion play out rather than guiding them. We asked questions as opposed to making statements. We let everyone talk, and we made sure that everyone felt they were heard. There was debate and even tension, but we worked through it. Once we had a long list of themes from those conversations, we had a subset of the group figure out how to capture the ideas in the words and phrases that we would use to refresh, to sharpen our principles. Not everyone’s ideas were going to reflected in the final list, but all appreciated the chance to share their insights. Many people, starting with me, considered it a great honor and privilege to be part of this important, “generational” work.
That level of communication was playing out across BlackRock. One of the lasting lessons that emerged from the pandemic was raising the bar for how often we communicate. When COVID-19 hit, we switched to daily standing meetings across the company, whether among our executive team or to check in and share our perspective with our clients. At the time, we told ourselves that the crisis demanded that level of over-communication, but we have held on to the heightened level of communication as our new standard, regardless of whether we are living through a crisis.
The following “enriched” BlackRock Principles are where we landed:
1. We are a fiduciary to our clients.
• Our clients’ interests come first. The fiduciary mindset is the bedrock of our identity. It reflects our integrity and the unbiased advice we give clients. And it’s what inspires us to come to work every day and help people build better futures.
• We believe that working collaboratively, without silos and without turf, creates the best outcomes for our clients, our company, and each other.
• An inclusive environment makes us thrive. It enables us to draw on expertise from across the firm and bring out the best in each other.
• A diverse workforce is indispensable to our creativity and success. It’s how we answer the biggest questions and solve the toughest problems.
• Aladdin unifies us, creating a common language for us to interpret the world, the markets and our clients’ needs.
3. We are passionate about performance.
• We are relentless about finding better ways to serve our clients and never stop thinking about how to deliver performance. We are constantly reinventing ourselves in pursuit of that goal.
• We are constant students—of markets, of technology and of the world.
• We are passionate about improving our company, our industry and each other. We never stop looking for better ways to help people achieve their goals.
4. We take emotional ownership.
• The people we serve entrust us to help them prepare for the future. Our culture is defined by the deep sense of responsibility we feel to our clients and to each other.
• In everything we do—from the investment performance we deliver to the technology we develop—we are emotionally invested in our clients’ futures.
• We are equally invested in the success of our firm and our colleagues. We hold ourselves and each other to the highest standards of excellence.
5. We are committed to a better future.
• We are long-term thinkers, focused on helping people build a better tomorrow. We are deeply invested in the success of all of our stakeholders—our clients, our employees, our shareholders and the communities where we operate.
• We operate our own business sustainably and responsibly, and as a shareholder on behalf of our clients, we advocate for other companies to do the same.
• We always strive to serve more people, and to find new and innovative ways to help them achieve their goals.
Through this process, we learned a few lessons that might benefit other organizations that are considering a values refresh:
First, there is no time like the present, regardless of what is happening in the present. At different points in the process, I was skeptical of whether taking on this challenge in the middle of a global pandemic was the right call. But we learned that whatever is happening in your company, it is always a good time to do these exercises.
Second, the process was structured to be very collaborative and to include the people who we thought were the best cultural ambassadors we had, not just at a senior level, but throughout the whole organization. They cared about BlackRock culture, and their involvement in refining the new list gave them an even greater sense of pride and emotional attachment to our community.
The third lesson is to challenge and question yourself on whether your values and principles need to be revisited. If you were involved in creating them years ago, it’s only natural to feel invested in them and to believe in their timeless value. And to be honest, it wasn’t as clear to me at first that our initial list had become dated. But you will discover through these workshops that not only is it an incredible bonding activity for the participants, but it will likely surface new themes and ideas that need to be incorporated. Societal and employee expectations change, and how people talk changes. Given the broad diversity of our employees, our clients and the markets in which we operate, you’ve got to come up with words that speak to as many people as possible. Just because the values speak to you and your executive team does not mean by definition they speak to the entire organization.
As we think about building our levels of resilience for the inevitable disruptions and crises that we will encounter in coming decades, I return to some core ideas. Our company, in simplest terms, is about people, process and technology. The principles bind our people together and reinforce their commitment to the firm and the work we do.
Rob Goldstein is Chief Operating Officer of BlackRock.