Luke Aulin is the Co-founder and CEO (aka the Mayor) of RTOWN – a company named one of the Top 15 digital marketing companies in BC by BC Business Magazine. Luke Aulin is a recipient of BiV’s Top 40 Under 40, an entrepreneur and a keynote speaker. RTOWN serves SMBs all over North America by acting as their digital CMO for hire with the team to execute the plan. Metrics-driven, performance marketing for a fraction of the cost it would take to build the right team in-house.
How do you define culture at the highest level?
It’s lived behavior. It is not what’s said, it is what is done.
Would that definition change when we are talking about an organization? If so, how?
It is the same but at a more granular level. It is the employee experience, the language we use, the team structure, training, decision making, performance review styles, and more. Culture touches everything.
Let's say you're joining a new organization, or you're starting a new business or a new company, and you can create the ideal organizational culture from your own perspective with no restrictions around costs or time. What are the first three things that come to mind for you in creating the ideal organizational culture? If you could create the ideal organizational culture with no restrictions like cost or time what are the first three things that come to mind for you?
- The top level leader has to live the values and values have to be aligned with the organization.
- Culture must tie into the overall game the organization is playing and they are setting out to win.
- Build a team who can make the decision and make it suitable to the organization and industry.
When we’re talking about creating an ideal culture it is very entrepreneur or leader specific. First and foremost, whatever core values the top-level leader has will make or break the cascade through an organization so if those are misaligned then it’s not ideal at all, it’s the exact opposite. From there the ideal culture is organization specific. What industry are they in? What are they trying to accomplish? What kind of game are they playing and how are they set out to win? The culture must serve what the company is setting out to do.
When developing RTOWN’s culture, I knew that I have more weaknesses than strengths so one of the values that came out of that was “team over individual”. We built our core values as a team, after one year it got serious, and we decided to build our culture with intent. We had to be proactive in what we wanted our culture to do. We all had a hand in shaping what our core values would become and that worked for us because we are team based. My weaknesses are greater than my strengths, so I need to surround myself with smart, capable, and great people. There’s no way we’re going to build this company with any hero at the top where they’re all knowing and all powerful. We build a team of people who can make decisions in the context of the organization. We have a very highly engaged team-based culture here. There’s no right answer, it depends on what the company needs and is set out to do, the ethos of the people starting with the founder.
When you think of poor organizational culture what are the first three things that come to mind?
- A top-down command and control structure: You’ve got to pull info from the best experts across the team and can’t make decisions alone or in a silo.
- When words and actions are not in harmony. Not doing what you say you’re going to do.
- Getting stuck in your biases and doubling down on bad decisions by allowing egos get in the way and not recognizing that everyone is fallible.
The world is changing at such a rapid pace, I think the starting point for organizations in today’s age is to recognize that not all knowledge is conjectural, that every human is fallible, and that the world is changing at a pace that no one individual can quite get their head wrapped around.
What are the top areas of opportunity for your team this year around people and culture?
We are blessed to have started our company as remote first from the start and then pulling together an office. We had no trouble shifting back to a remote primary structure. We’ve got a head start and I am excited to formalize some of the opportunities around that that bring us together. We can use the funds we’d otherwise spend on a lease for team building opportunities that get the team excited and amped up together because they actually want to, not because it’s a work thing they are obligated for.
Creating moments and bonds for the team is the focus regardless of where they are is our top opportunity this year. Most of it is digital and virtual, but when we come together as a team, we’re doing something that makes a lasting impact and it’s memorable and impactful, and it’s not necessarily just work-related, but it creates a moment. It creates that bond and, so that is the kind of thing I’m excited to explore and build out over the next year.
How do you see yourself managing the different ways people feel about getting together in real life in a post pandemic world?
There’s never one thing that will work for everyone. There’s always going to be different perspectives so make space for those. We’ll make sure that nothing is forced or required and that all participants are willing volunteers. I try to cultivate a space where lots of contrary opinions are held and as little judgement as possible is passed. The perfect example is what we’re working through right now. We are working through a perfect example right now. I think a lot of organizations are working through it and I’m trying to be mindful of my communication around the pandemic. Frankly, we’ve got people in the world today and they work at our companies and some of them are worried about vaccines.
How can we blame anyone for taking a stance on any one way of doing this whole thing? It has been so confusing for so many people, that’s just one example and, for the record, I’m pro-vaccine. I got my shot, I have been wearing a mask and I am that way, but I don’t hate on the people who have concerns about these vaccines. I don’t like it but, it’s genuine and I don’t think they’re bad people. I think they’re approaching this through a lens that makes sense to them and right now, that’s deep for them. So, that’s just one example of how I try to communicate around that and create space for all people and perspectives.
Recently two companies (Coinbase and Basecamp) made public announcements regarding their desire and initiative to not weigh in on political and sensitive topics. This is being seen from two extremes as either a smart move or a cowardly move. How do you think organizations can navigate the increasingly challenging world where taking a side on an issue may alienate the opposing group? How do you see these moves by these organizations?
Any attempt to control what people are allowed to say and discuss in any sphere of life is a recipe for disaster. If history is any teacher, we must be careful with the freedoms we restrict or take away. I take a human nature approach to this question. I think of kids. If you make a rule humans will often just go around it. Prohibition of alcohol did not stop alcohol from being sold or consumed, it just worsened the issue. Regarding Coinbase and basecamp, it is not for me to judge. Those actions are not my style and I do not see myself ever leading a culture where some things are okay to talk about or some are not.
As soon as we pick and choose what is okay to discuss we are in for a long road of pain where a lot of things get tabled because no one really knows what is okay anymore.
What are the most effective things you do to translate the organizational vision for the team?
I repeat myself a lot. Over and over and over again until people’s eyes are rolling in the back of their heads. It’s about repeating a lot of the same things over and over again. That’s the number one right there for sure.
Sometimes organizational culture isn’t a good fit between employees and companies. What advice would you give others to help them figure that out for themselves?
It’s an individual journey to find out what’s true and the sooner people get clean on their own core values it’s easier to find a fit. It’s got to be true, and it’s got to be right for the individual. That’s what I think the first three months are actually about. It’s less about metrics and KPIs as those will come when it’s truly a culture fit. Generally, people are good and want to be successful and contribute to overall success. When results aren’t coming it’s usually a culture misalignment issue. I like to say that it’s ok.
It’s OUR culture. You aren’t a bad person if you don’t fit in here. There’s no one path that fits all. Show up how you truly are and then be big enough about it to be honest about when a person will flourish. It’s not about firing, it’s about freeing up the future. We aren’t doing someone a service by keeping them around we are preventing them from finding their true purpose, their Ikagai.
How do you integrate your giving nature into your organizational culture and empower your own team on their journey to give back?
I try to listen a lot and I try to make it as individual and personal as possible with the team when it comes to giving here. We do organizational things around company targets, and we are currently redesigning and building out a new profit-sharing plan.
We are always looking for opportunities to give back. Whether it’s a product from a customer that we buy because we are behind them or if someone is going through something on the homefront that’s heavy we invite them to take themselves and their partner out on the town for an enjoyable break on us.
How do we foster this in our team to create a culture around that with them?
I went to burning man in 2019 and that gift giving culture was the stand out thing in the culture: giving without an expectation for return. I want to instill that as a cultural value for our team.
Tell us about a time when you were able to create and build culture successfully? What was the hardest part of it?
I have encouraged and coached other entrepreneurs starting out to do what we did when we started designing our culture code. We had an outside facilitator come in and run the meeting, it was about 2 hours, so I sat with the team. I was no longer standing up white boarding, capturing what I wanted to capture. I was sitting down ideating with the group and someone else was capturing it. It was an important move because now I am with the team, not above them. We have someone independent running and capturing what everyone is saying.
What was hard about that wasn’t the 2-hour meeting, the three or four hours of writing things out, the hours pouring it over, or another month of talking with the team. It was the full quarter of effort and energy of sustained focus on, are we capturing what we really want this to say and what we really want this to mean? Do we all understand the meaning of all these things and is it meaningful to us? It was hard work. Taking the time to do that one thing early on was super helpful.
When were you surprised by a culture initiative's success? This can be something your organization has done or something that an outside company has done.
What’s surprised me is how much employees lean into our company’s financial statements in our quarterly town halls. Most of our employees now know the difference between the P&L statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statements and have an understanding of how they’re role impacts company financial health. I wasn’t sure if people would come to care and learn about how we create cash and when we aren’t whether they’d be frightened and leave.
The opposite has come true – it has led to higher trust, more connectivity to company health, and an ownership mindset across the team. When your web developers care about accounts receivables and customer profitability (for us and the customer) as much as I do, you know that culture initiative is working out.