How Alignment Scaled a Unicorn with Kim Atherton

As a trained occupational psychologist, Kim Atherton has worked with leaders and organizations to understand how they create high-performance teams. She joined Ovo Energy – a green energy tech company in the UK – as Chief People Officer when it was just 50 people in a barn, helped to scale the company to 2,500 employees and is now the second largest energy business in the United Kingdom. During her time at Ovo, she recognized that misalignment was a problem for companies, which inspired her to found Just3Things, a startup that helps organizations improve alignment at scale. 

How Alignment Scaled a Unicorn with Kim Atherton

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Alignment With The Vision

In 2012 Kim was in the final interview stage at a large bank. It was a great career move on paper, but the thought of getting out of bed every day to do succession planning for a big bank just didn’t excite her. About that time she met the founder of Ovo Energy, who told her that he needed someone to help him build the world’s best company, someone who would be willing to unlearn traditional HR practices. Kim jumped at the opportunity to help scale Ovo as she believed in its vision. [Listen from 1:45]

The mission and values of a company are more important than the compensation and prestige, Barry comments. A transformative purpose pulls people together: you’re willing to put up with more when you know it’s for the greater good. It keeps you going through the tough times. [Listen from 3:45]

Aligning Values With Behavior

Human beings pick up on behavioral cues almost unconsciously. Creating a company culture that aligns with your vision often means unlearning traditional practices, and being intentional about using processes that result in desired behaviors. Ovo knew their success depended on being nimble and agile, so they eschewed traditional competency-based interview practices in favor of interviewing based on learning agility. Kim says that you can always upskill an employee if they don’t have a certain programming ability, but you can’t train learning agility – you either have it or you don’t. [Listen from 6:50]

In the fast-paced world of a startup company, full transparency and good communication are vital. You want to create an environment of psychological safety to empower your team to experiment and learn. Reiterate the vision often and embed activities around values to remind your team that we’re all part of a bigger purpose, Kim advises. [Listen from 12:15]

Learning and Unlearning Employee Incentives

Barry finds that the highest performing companies are those who experiment and figure out the right practices for their context. Kim agrees that experimentation and an efficient feedback loop enabled Ovo to learn what works best for them. For example, their experiment with removing the holiday policy taught them that, trendy though it was, it wasn’t ideal for them. We need guardrails, they learned, otherwise it’s really hard to do our jobs. At Just3Things, Kim finds that they’re unlearning all the time. Feedback from customers often challenges their assumptions and they have to rethink some aspect of the product. [Listen from 19:55]  

A Golden Thread

Just3Things was inspired by the need for a goal-setting tool for cross-functional teams. Kim describes it as a simple and transparent tool where teams could see how the outcomes they are working on align with company strategy, then link their day to day tasks to the outcomes, forming a golden thread through the entire process. It started as a manual process at Ovo, but was developed into a digital tool when the concept proved useful in recouping lost productivity time. Kim describes how she discovered the need in the market for her product, and how she founded Just3Things to answer that market need. Barry comments that when you understand how your effort is aligning to positive customer outcomes, its an unending tap of motivation and experimentation. [Listen from 30:00]

Resources

Just3Things.com 

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