Connecting Values to Behavior with a ‘Standard of Performance’

We often refer to Atomic as a values-driven organization. We are loud and proud about our value mantras. We give recognition within the organization when someone exhibits our values. We are careful to hire people who are aligned with our values.

But how do you consistently and comprehensively tie together values and behavior? How can you consistently identify behavior that is value-aligned within an organization? Enter the standard of performance.

Values Alone Aren’t Enough

A standard of performance is the connection between values and action. It is a code of ethics to which a person is held, either by an organization or themselves. Although the standard of performance concept has always rung true to me, I became explicitly aware of it when reading The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh.

Bill Walsh is a personal hero of mine. He was a football coach from 1960 to 1994. In 1979, Walsh (then the head coach at Stanford University) was hired by the lackluster San Francisco 49ers. During the 1978 season, the team had fallen to a terrible win-loss record of 2-14. In fact, at that point, the team had not had a winning record since 1972. In Walsh, they had their fourth head coach in four years. Clearly, there was something deeply dysfunctional within the organization that went beyond the team on the playing field. In more ways than one, they were the worst team in football.

A Standard of Performance and Cultural Change

Walsh came into the organization and immediately implanted his own standard of performance. He described it in the book:

“Exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement; demonstrate respect for each person in the organization and the work he or she does; be deeply committed to learning and teaching; be fair; demonstrate character; honor the direct connection between details and improvement and relentlessly seek the latter; show self-control under pressure; demonstrate and prize loyalty; use positive language and have a positive attitude; take pride in my effort as an entity separate from the result of that effort; be willing to go the extra distance for the organization; deal appropriately with victory and defeat; seek points in myself and those I lead; put the team’s welfare and priorities ahead of my own; maintain an ongoing level of concentration and focus that is abnormally high; make sacrifice and commitment the organization’s trademark.”

Walsh held everyone in the organization accountable to this standard of performance—from star players to coaches to the person in charge of answering phones. Every job and every detail mattered. If a member of the organization could not or would not put effort into adhering to Walsh’s Standard, they were let go. This included star players.

In one of the most storied turnarounds in sports history, the 49ers won the Super Bowl two years later. Walsh went on to lead the team to two more NFL Championships in the 1980s and become one of the most revered leaders in sports. He credits his success with the development of his standard of performance.

Atomic’s Standard of Performance

At Atomic, we also have a standard of performance that ties our core values to the ethics we want to see in all our team members. We don’t call it such, but it is the way we measure the alignment of individuals with our observational values.

Credit for definition and distillation of this standard goes to our founder Carl Erickson and People Development Consultant, Mary DeYoung. In 2018, they worked together to define success factors for people at Atomic. However, Carl and Mary DY did not come up with these traits. Everyone at Atomic over the past 18 years contributed to this list by being their amazing selves.

  1. We are relentlessly dissatisfied with the status quo. We are self-critical, sometimes to a fault. We aren’t satisfied with good enough. We appreciate quality in all aspects of our business.
  2. We have stamina. We work in such a way that we can work indefinitely. We aren’t lazy and we don’t take shortcuts. We’re proud of hard work.
  3. We are creative. In all aspects of the company, we appreciate novel and unusual approaches to problems. We appreciate beauty and elegance. We avoid gratuitous creativity, leavening our creativity with a regard for utility and impact.
  4. We are curious. We have interesting hobbies. We enjoy learning new things. We love the breadth of exposure we get to our clients’ industries. We ask “why?”
  5. We have integrity. We do what we say. We take personal responsibility for our work, our relationships, and our commitments.
  6. We are relational. We invest in and care for each other. We form strong connections with the people we work with. We encourage and enable everyone to bring their best selves to work.
  7. We are smart. We find good ways to solve problems. We operate our business really well. We engage deeply in problems.
  8. We are disciplined. We protect quality and good work. We don’t cut corners. We work hard and sustainably. We don’t tolerate “good enough.” We relish exposure to market forces and competition because we can compete effectively—it makes us strong.
  9. We are generous. We share our good fortune, wealth, time, and expertise. We practice a giver strategy.
  10. We are trusting. We don’t tie Atoms to legal contracts. Our client relationships are built primarily on trust, not legal documents. We extend credit to every client we work with. We share important company information internally. We have unlimited sick time. We have guidelines instead of rules.

Everyone at Atomic is expected to strive to live up to this standard of performance. We don’t shy away from the challenge; it’s invigorating and exciting to be held accountable. We also have flexibility and empathy when life gets hard in other areas and we flag from the standard for a time. As the list above mentions, we treat each other with generosity and trust.


If the idea of forming part of a high-performing team is appealing to you, I invite you to get in touch. We are always looking for folks who exhibit these traits and believe in high standards to join the Atomic team. We invite you to test our mettle through the hiring process. Who knows? You might end up feeling right at home as an Atom.