When David, Marshall and Stefano founded Atlas AI in 2018 they defined traits of Creativity, Excellence, Impact and Honesty as themes they wanted to guide the early buildout of the company. Given our growth over the course of 2019 and a team now approaching 20 people, we decided it was time to build on those themes to develop Atlas AI’s core values.
I’ve seen core values done well, having twice had the opportunity to work with Niko Canner in my career and to experience businesses under his leadership that were ingrained with a core set of guiding values. 20+ years after Niko and his Partners founded Katzenbach Partners and 12 years after the firm was sold to Booz & Co (which itself has since been acquired by PwC), I expect a majority of the 350+ Katzenbach alumni can still name the firm’s three core values — Clear and Lasting Client Impact, Unique and Formative Experience, and Different Kind of Firm. More impressively those values still carry meaning and are definitional of the firm that we are proud to have played some role in building.
I learned from my experiences working with Niko that core values are more than a list of bullet points on a website or concepts that get dusted off a few times a year in a pulse survey. Leaders who build lasting companies ensure their values act as cornerstones of the company’s culture, that they guide who to hire and that they give voice to every member of the company. Jake Saper, a friend and former colleague at Katzenbach, now at Emergence Capital, has done some great writing on the topic.
Over the course of several working sessions David, Marshall, Stefano and I discussed the original four themes and a range of additional principles that felt true to the company that we want to build, with the ultimate goal of narrowing down to 3–4 values. For example we could envision no future version of Atlas AI that lacks a commitment to research and scientific discovery, even if at the expense of other value-creating activities. We wanted to avoid values that felt so aspirational as to set an unrealistic expectation of the principles we can live by in 2021.
The four resulting values, each with an underlying set of characteristics we aspire for the Atlas AI team to exemplify in our work and decision making, are:
For existing Atlas AI team members these values shouldn’t feel like a significant departure from the company we’ve been working to build to-date. But they offer a vocabulary and an ongoing reminder to ensure we are guided by our values especially in more challenging moments.
I’ve always thought that values should shine brightest against the most difficult decisions. And without a doubt the majority of those moments still lie ahead of us as we strive to build a company that has a lasting impact on the trajectory and inclusivity of economic development globally. After we developed the above values, we also stress tested our commitment to them considering scenarios with less obvious resolution than those in which the company finds itself at the end of 2020:
- It’s easy to be transparent with company financial information when the company is experiencing strong performance, but will we be equally as transparent during moments of financial stress and uncertainty?
- We are committed to an ambitious AI research agenda, some of which may not have immediate product application. Are we as committed to that agenda when the list of near-term product requirements is in urgent need of extra resourcing?
- The company was founded with an impact agenda considered central to our mission, but what if more traditional commercial use cases explode in popularity? Will we maintain focus on development-oriented product applications even if doing so is at short-term tension with doubling down on areas of early commercial success?
Embedding these values in our ongoing work will dwarf the upfront effort it took to define them. My litmus test for success is not a high “values” score on our pulse survey. I believe we’ll have done this work well when we start to regularly witness two occurrences: (1) team members using the language of the values to guide decisions in their day to day contexts, and (2) newer or more junior team members using the values to confidently question leadership decisions. As Niko wrote about his experience in building Katzenbach Partners, “The pressure to live up to the promise of our values made us better.” I very strongly hope we can say the same about Atlas AI in the years ahead.
We’ll continue to use this blog to update both on our progress developing great products that advance our mission, and on our work to build a thriving, resilient organization. We welcome you to reach out to share what resonates. And as always, we’re hiring!