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How to build a People function: Culture

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

With Rune Kvist, Chief Operating Officer at Aula


As part of a series that considers the People 👪 function in EdTech startups and scaleups (with relevance to all startups!), we sat down with Rune Kvist, Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Aula.

Rune joined Aula in November 2017 as part of the founding team. Rune was employee number 6. Aula is a remote-first team, having made the transition a few years ago.

Rune is charged with overseeing and directing Aula’s organisational and operational effectiveness. This includes overseeing Aula’s teams and People approach. As an early hire into the COO role, Rune has overseen the development of Aula’s renowned remote-first operation and the development of the company’s culture. This is known internally as The Aula Brain. At present, Aula is an intentionally lean team of 50 employees, supported by around 20 experienced contractors that they utilise as they expand. Looking ahead, Aula expects to double in size in the next 12 months, in line with its commercial outlook.

About Aula

Aula is designed to improve student engagement within a learning community, tailored to individual education settings. It provides community-first learning experiences. Aula enables settings to integrate high-engagement practices into personal pedagogy. Aula is a member of the Brighteye Ventures family. More information about Aula is available here.

You can watch some of the highlights here and the tips are set out below!

Aula has spent a lot of timing thinking about its culture. Why do you think that it’s important to define a mission and values?

The main benefit of having a clear mission and a clear set of values (we call them ‘virtues’) is that you are able to anchor all of your internal and external communications in ‘north stars’ that you think always hold true. In our case, this means that we are able to refer to our missions and virtues in our communications with all relevant stakeholders. For example, Aula, with universities a key target audience, uses and refers to its virtues when pitching as the prospective client will be able to get a sense for how we work and how we conduct our business. One of the three central virtues is to be ‘transparent by default’ – we find that this focus on honesty and integrity, particularly in our external communications, opens up a range of conversations that we may not otherwise have with existing clients, prospective clients and other partners. I believe it helps us make more progress with clients more quickly as exchanges are intentionally open and honest.

We also find that the virtues shape the way we communicate internally- we often refer to them directly in meetings. This makes sure that the mission and virtues are at the centre of everything we do. The other two virtues are ‘silly ambitious’ and ‘uncomfortably focused’. ‘Silly ambitious’ means taking calculated risks, embracing failure as part of achieving big outcomes, and asking ’what would it take?’, not ‘is that even possible?’. “Uncomfortably focused’ means always delivering on the most important thing and embracing saying ‘no’ to good projects to save room for great projects.

Tip 1: Prioritise forming a mission and values early on in your company’s journey- it’s important to your team and they will feed into your interactions with customers. A considered mission and values can anchor your internal and external communications.

How did you work through defining the mission and values?

You want to make sure that you have taken the time to hear the perspectives of team members. But it can be difficult to arrive at first drafts of these statements and phrases in a democratic way- so we started with the early founding team spelling out the reasons Aula exists. We then brought this to the wider organisation via a series of workshops to make sure the language resonated with the team and could be mapped on to our strategic decisions. Following team sessions, we iterated and developed our final mission statement.

The process of arriving at our values was more democratic and involved a number of different steps. We started by going out to the organisation and asking a few exploratory questions, such as ‘how would you describe Aula?’; ‘how would you describe your experiences at the organisation?’; ‘when you think about taking another job at another startup in an equivalent role and equivalent salary, what would make you want to stay at Aula?’. This helped us understand what Aula does well today and what we should aspire to become. Values should always sit between where you are today and where you aspire to be. We boiled the findings down to some high level wording that we ran past the organisation again to make sure it fitted well. We wanted to make sure these were not just words on a poster but that they were mapped on to concrete behaviours. At Aula, we call them virtues- defined as values in action. The behaviours are intended to avoid unintended consequences- for instance, we didn’t want the virtue of being ‘transparent by default’ to be used as an excuse for unnecessary directness! And we wanted to make clear that us being ambitious shouldn’t mean everyone burns out. The team needs to be heavily involved if you are going to tie the values closely to business operations.

Tip 2: Engage the whole team in the process, but don’t be afraid to lay out some thoughts or a first draft as a leadership team. You might find it helpful to work out what your team values in your culture and what drives them- you are creating this mission and set of values for the team first and the wider world second!

How do Aula’s leaders try to encourage the team to live the values?

Leadership setting the example is very important, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t tolerate leaders that sometimes don’t live perfectly to the values- they are intentionally difficult to meet and maintain. If no one occasionally slips on the values, it probably means your values aren’t tied closely to the day-to-day functioning of the business.

Leaders fall short on the values all the time. But of course, the leadership team must mostly,and try hard to, embody the values. We encourage team members to hold each other to account, without being excessive or heavy-handed. This intentionally creates a virtuous cycle of positive behaviours and positive interactions.

In practice, we find that the actions associated with values interact. For example, we find that the virtue of being transparent by default allows everyone to mention if someone is not quite meeting the values expected- ultimately, this is one of the main reasons it’s important to properly define them and make sure that the team is supportive and understands the values you adopt.

Tip 3: Be bold and highlight when team members at all levels aren’t meeting the missions and values- it usually means they’re working! It’s only human to slip up on the values, but it’s important to try and live them as closely as possible.

How does Aula think about leadership and team management at the organisation level?

There are a couple of strands we consider when thinking about leadership at Aula. The first is that leadership is not the same as management. We call our approach to leadership the ‘unbusy leader’- a number of commitments sit under this approach and all team members are able to explore this during onboarding and are also encouraged to apply and execute the commitments in their own work. Everyone shows up at Aula and shows leadership in their work no matter their position. The underlying principle of the ‘unbusy leader’ is creating conditions in which each team member is focused on being excellent in their own specialism, which of course broadens with seniority. This involves delegation and outsourcing work where it makes sense; helping clarify team strategy; and making sure the team has the right capabilities and resources it needs to hit its goals. We wouldn’t say that this model suits every organisation but it suits us!

We are 50 people in the organisation. Given that we remain relatively small, we don’t run structured leadership academies or other management programmes. But we have invested quite heavily in executive coaching both for the leadership team and new managers.

I personally spend much more time with new managers rather than experienced managers. We hired a People lead recently and one of their priorities will be to take the ‘unbusy leader’ from a set of principles to a formal part of our operating model. They will need to think about how we boil it down into a new rubric that both holds people accountable and helps them progress. Consistency is the underlying focus.

Tip 4: Allow your leadership and team management approach to flow as your company changes size. Formality for formality’s sake is never a good idea. Team members should be enabled to work as autonomously as you desire, so this will likely vary by team. Let it vary!

Open leaders are more likely to lead open team members

Sharing leaders’ calendars is encouraged. Leadership is not always top-down- sometimes leaders should focus on leading by example. This is certainly the case for working patterns. Working smart should be encouraged, with working hard and long hours not the standard and necessary only when working to strict and important deadlines.

The easiest way to set this expectation is by sharing calendars, which should intentionally be built out to reflect ring-fenced times for sport, hobby, socials, family time etc. Specifics aren’t necessary, but blocking time is an excellent way to guide team members’ own habits.

If you set an example of working 18 hours a day, there’s a good chance your team members will feel that they need to meet an unrealistic, unsustainable and unproductive work rate.

Tip 5: Leaders should share calendars with staff where possible and use them to map out their own ‘healthy’ working practices. Leadership means setting an example, not doing the most work. It’s important to help your team keep balance and you should clarify priorities if it seems they’re over-working.

How do you think about providing feedback to team members?

Given our current scale, our feedback process is relatively informal.

There are a couple of guiding ideas for our current approach to feedback. Firstly, because Aula is not that large a company, we don’t yet need a fool-proof system with lots of boxes to fill and forms to review. We decided this having developed a formal approach and realising it didn’t suit us! It wasn't a good use of managers’ or team members’ time. We like to learn from leading companies, so we adapted our approaches to people management having explored other companies’ processes. We believe that it’s the responsibility of the manager to make sure their team is both supported to be successful in their respective roles and also that they know where they stand on performance. It’s therefore possible to have different approaches by team, which appeals to us. For example, we are inspired by the way they use transparency at Netflix to foster meaningful conversations. I am now testing particular heuristics such as ‘are your team members able to answer, ”if I quit tomorrow, how much would my manager fight to keep me?”’ And the reverse is also useful: I might ask a manager, “if this person quits, how likely would you be to fight for them?” as a way of understanding their performance, what they’re doing well and what could be improved. The question alone does not capture nuances, but it’s a great way of starting the conversation and helps managers understand what they really like and need from the team member and what more they could offer. We haven’t nailed it yet and I expect our approach to evolve and develop in time, but the lean approach is working well at the moment.

Tip 6: Lean feedback processes are often more helpful for both managers and team members. More detailedapproaches are not always better. Use simple questions to evaluate performance and find inspiration from companies you admire.

Honest and direct feedback between managers and team members

While it’s important to keep processes as lean as possible, it’s important that managers and team members maintain an open dialogue around their progress. Keeping conversations leanmeans cutting straight to the key questions. All organisations have tackled the same questions as they’ve developed, so it’s worth considering literature and experiences from companies you admire. In Aula’s case, they consider the Netflix guidance on personal development. A good place to start is by asking yourself a key question:

Could you tell us a bit more about your feedback cycles?

Everyone at Aula does weekly one-to-ones. I share monthly performance notes with all members of my time (I directly manage 6 members of the team). Sometimes these notes might just be a sentence (e.g. “You smashed the last thing we discussed!”) and sometimes it starts a more in-depth conversation (e.g. “let’s have a bigger conversation on X as I know you can hit a higher standard”). It’s quite an ad-hoc process, given that we work so closely with each other day-to-day. Working closely means that I can stay attentive to evolving situations and to individuals’ needs. Having an ad-hoc system does require a base level of ‘managerial muscle’ in the organisation, another phrase coined by Netflix! If you don’t have ‘guard rails’ around everything, you need managers able to make judgements and prioritise their work and team members on their own. This is something we look for during relevant recruitment. I think we have made a lot of progress on this in recent years, but we still have work to do. Our approach to feedback is actually similar in some ways to how we set organisational goals- for example, we used to tightly run 3 month-long OKR cycles that would always be managed the same way and have the same structure. But we have now totally disregarded this approach. We weren’t sure how to set effective goals for each team, but for the last 3 years we have really improved our approach. We now form goals for each team, set, met and reviewed every 6 months. We currently have 3 headline goals across the company- and typically run project-oriented cycles for between 2 and 6 weeks depending on the scale and importance of the project to the central goal. It’s hard to make this happen, but it’s worth the effort.

Tip 7: Catch-ups, both individual and project-oriented, with team members should be frequent but no longer than necessary, especially if good progress continues to be made by the individual and for their progression. Catching up on progress and performance on specific projects is a great way to keep feedback relevant and frequent.

How does the team communicate on a daily or weekly basis? What are the key meetings?

At Aula, we have some weekly flows for companywide communication, consisting of a few pillars. There is the weekly ‘all hands’ where we discuss priorities for the company, including specific projects; there is a weekly recording that Anders (CEO) does for the whole organisation, focusing on the state of Aula and his thoughts on upcoming priorities for the company; lots of different team leaders share a weekly recorded progress update; and we have a virtual social every Friday which might focus on anything from playing ‘scribble’ or ‘werewolf’ to a quiz or alternative entertainment. In addition to these regular communications, we have a companywide dashboard of metrics that includes our progress against yearly targets, OKRs, quarterly and other goals we are trying to meet. This is iterative but always focuses on how we are doing and where we are heading.

We also use a range of broader asynchronous communications. Each team and each project have dedicated Slack channels where people can set out progress and outcomes. Once we have approved and agreed larger projects, they move to the (aforementioned) company handbook called the Aula Brain,- most of its information is public.

For more informal conversations, we use tools like Donut in Slack that sets you up with someone outside your team every week for a casual catch up. We also have informal spaces in Slack for pets, runners, music fans and the like. An overview of our various channels can be found here. Once the pandemic is over, we hope to return to having our in-person ‘retreats’ a couple of times per year.

Tip 8: Consider the most effective synchronous and asynchronous means of communication for the team, and make sure the leadership team keeps the team abreast of important news and milestones. Communications should be both formal and informal. You need to give your team both forms.

How to think about supporting employee wellbeing

The main components of employee wellbeing surround whether you’re at a company where you care about the mission, where you have trust in and respect from colleagues, where you are trusted to make decisions, and where you can see a sense of progression. You want to be doing work you find interesting with people you like and respect. This can be taken into account during interviews where it’s relevant to raise and explore organisation culture.

Time away from work is a key component of wellbeing. A degree of flexibility on working hours and locations is a great way of helping to boost wellbeing, as it allows employees to have more autonomy over their schedules. This means that employees are able to revolve work around their lives rather than the other way round, if they so choose and they are still able to perform their role to a great standard. Of course, startup life does sometimes demand long hours, but employees should feel empowered to recharge how and when necessary.

This said, wellbeing budgets and programmes can also make a difference and can set the tone of the organisation’s approach to wellbeing. Leaders must take advantage of the budgets and of the flexibility if other team members are to feel able to utilise them.

Tip 9: Trust and respect are critical for employee wellbeing- base your decisions on ensuring team members feel trusted, respected and able to use the benefits you provide. Employees must be supported and enabled to have fulfilling personal lives! This will support your organisation’s productivity.

How does Aula think about compensation and rewards?

Aula has developed and refined a salary scale, depending on experience, seniority and performance. This is intentionally transparent across the organisation so that team members can easily see what they need to do to move to the next band and what the rewards look like in that band. We believe this creates a healthy environment, focused on progression, transparency and making sure team members feel their growth at Aula has no ceilings.

Aula sets out the following steps to arrive at Base Pay:

1. Level and team

2. Region and percentile

3. Optional: Discretionary manager adjustment

Further detail on Aula’s rewards and benefits can be found here, providing useful insights for all companies but particularly for those currently or beginning to hire remotely.

Tip 10: Rewards need to be fair and progression transparent, so that team members can monitor and chart their own progression. To build a great company, you need great people and great people need to be appropriately incentivised. Transparency avoids perceptions and realities of unfairness.

The tips in one place:


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