What Are the Challenges of Running a Values-Based Company?

What are the challenges of running a values-based company? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Jordan Ritter, CEO of Atlas Informatics, formerly of Napster and Cloudmark, on Quora.

Here are some really important lessons I've learned about building a values-oriented culture in startups:

All values flow from the top. Whether intentional or not, the beat everyone marches to comes from the person with absolute authority to hire and fire in the organization. The values don't come from co-founders without the CEO title (no matter how hard they tried - personal experience), nor from what's written on the wall (unless of course they match), or from the VP of HR or from the assembled culture committee. If the CEO abides by them, they're real and true and everyone attunes to them; if she doesn't abide by them, then all the values do is erode trust and faith in what the company actually stands for.

Values are best when measurable. Back in one of my prior companies, one of the inspirational words we came up with in a values exercise was Passion - we all felt it, we all believed in it - but as a compass point for the culture, what did that actually mean? The word defined a feeling we all felt, but as a way to perpetuate and reinforce the culture we loved, it was actually kind of judgmental and terrible. So it's really important to pick words, phrases or concepts that are objective and applicable every day.

Here at Atlas, our general frame for what makes a good Value is a word that can be used to evaluate, assess, praise and critique on a daily basis. For us, Passion felt personally judgmental and just couldn't be measured, but Obsession was easier to see and encourage, and its absence didn't mean you were a bad person. And if you really think about it, the big startup luminaries we all look up to have Obsession in spades.

Things change. One other way to look at values and culture is through the lens of "social norms," which change all the time. When the written Values stop matching the true culture of the company, they become erosive and destructive. It's important to understand that whatever you establish as your values today, they're going to have to be re-evaluated over time.

Great values often have some opposing tension. Not only is it natural, but frankly I'd encourage creating values that have some tension between them. It might seem counterintuitive at first, but those tensions can lead to really good conversations, and allow teams to flex what's important when circumstances require it.

If you're curious about the values at Atlas, which is the 5th company I've helped build, here they are:

  • Craftsmanship: Take great pride in building meaningful things that last -- platforms, products, teams, and cultures. This value is about durability, not perfection.
  • Obsession: Be obsessive about everything: technology, innovation, reinvention, each other, and our community. Obsession is the rocket fuel of our creativity.
  • Experimentalism: Be opportunistic, be fearless, be willing to fail and try again. Seek out ways to challenge yourself and each other. There's no instruction guide -- always be iterating and trying new things.
  • Adaptability: Strive for agility in thought and versatility in action. Befriend change and embrace it warmly -- it is the only certain thing.
  • Inclusion: Listen with humility, speak with conviction, be open to influence, nurture and invest in each other, dream and deliver together. Despite the naming, this value is not actually about the literal act of including people, but rather about the broader (and frankly far more important) aspects of how we treat each other.
  • Bias for Action: Insist on decisiveness and execution . Making informed choices where risk is involved is important, but perfection is the mortal enemy of done. You're not ever going to get it right: the sooner you get started, the sooner you'll learn, and the sooner you'll achieve something better.

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