A Hands-On, Hands-Off Culture: CEO Aza Steel Wins With OKRs

Aza Steel is all about hearing his employees’ great ideas—and as CEO of GoGuardian, he makes sure they don’t get lost in the shuffle. “We’ve continued to bring on incredible people who I’m really excited to keep building stuff with,” he told Namely.

GoGuardian is a student online safety provider that offers the most advanced filtering, monitoring, and classroom management software available for school computers. As the head of a  company so dedicated to the advancement of knowledge, it’s no surprise that Steel wants all of his employees’ ideas to reach the top. And that makes up a lot of his day as CEO. “I spend a lot of time dealing with interpersonal or 'we're all human' stuff.”

Steel is very conscious of the positive culture he’s building, but he’s equally conscious to not overengineer it. That is, he keenly knows when to let the culture build itself. If all ideas are encouraged and being circulated, Steel says everything is fine. The problem arises when some people’s ideas are stifled. “It’s important to recognize that there are often people with valuable ideas who aren’t always great at vocalizing them in front of a group,” Steel said.  An HR-centric CEO like Steel asks those people for their thoughts and encourages employees to make decisions on their own, with the luxury of a personal touch afforded to companies of less than 100 (GoGuardian staff stands at 53 today).

When he’s not working to encourage his employees, Steel is looking for the best people to build his workforce—something he’s gotten good at. GoGuardian has more than double the number of employees it had earlier this year. And they’re not all the same. Steel makes sure of that.

In Steel’s book, it’s not a deal-breaker if a candidate isn’t a “perfect fit” for the GoGuardian culture. Sometimes, intelligence and drive outweigh a flawless cultural fit. “People think a little too much about, ‘how much am I going to want to work with this person,’” Steel said. “It can be worth it sometimes to hire someone who is really smart but also a little difficult.” Steel is over the recruiting maxim of simply hiring those you’d love to get a beer with.

A focus on skills makes for a more diverse workplace with more intriguing cultural variables tossed in, whereas a more homogenous team of “culture fits” means unique thinking can fall to the wayside. “You want people that have really different perspectives,” Steel said. But, when you throw a bunch of different working styles and personalities into the mix, how can you be certain productivity is at its peak? That everyone still works well together? Steel has a solution: look to the data.

OKRs to the Rescue

GoGuardian’s goal-setting methods are growing right along with its staff. Steel helped roll out the company’s first cycle of OKRs in the first quarter of 2015. Invented at Intel and made popular by Google, OKRs are objectives and key results—the claims of what people and companies want to accomplish paired with concrete and measurable key results to see how close their efforts come to success. At GoGuardian, their OKRs focused on a company-level distribution with the help of sponsors across the company to run evaluations.

But these sponsors weren’t always managers, and Steel had his reasons. “Sometimes it would just be someone who I felt particularly confident in their ability to deliver results,” he said. “It was a great way to test someone’s follow through and figure out what their trajectory in the organization might be.” It’s one more way for Steel to learn about his employees when he may not work with them closely day to day.

The next step, which GoGuardian has also recently implemented, was to add departmental goals into the equation. Following that, of course, will be to fully cascade the goals across the entire organization, reaching them all the way up to the core goals of the company itself.

Alongside the quick and easy search for any employee’s contact information, Namely’s 360° Reviews are an anticipated addition to Steel’s performance management toolbox. His reasons for choosing the review method are numerous. The first comes from Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Thing About Hard Things. In the pages and pages of tips for building a business, Horowitz touches on the minimizing of workplace politics through a clear structure for promoting—criteria that 360° reviews fulfill easily.

Reviewing from all sides also offers valuable insight into employees. When coupled with OKRs, Steel will be able to see just how productive people are inside the culture GoGuardian is carefully building. Whether it’s recognizing and rewarding the right people or helping those who need it, 360° reviews will be Steel’s sure way to boost transparency—in an honest way.

Setting Company Values

With talent management and recruiting efforts ever-advancing, GoGuardian’s core values offer a guiding light as the company continues growing. With a list of maxims to live by—including “communicate openly, seek truth without ego,” and “move fast, be resourceful”—employees are guided towards achieving their goals as Steel is guided towards pursuing great talent.

Company values can be a fast-growing company’s best friend. When new hires are introduced to the company, these values ensure everyone is on the same page when it comes to approaching their work. Steel, as CEO, is still actively involved in recruiting—but he can’t build his team alone. “It takes a village,” he said. And that village includes him, GoGurdian’s head of talent, various department heads and soon to come, a head of HR.

With 44 employees today (and 9 independent contractors), Steel is looking to fill a few positions geared towards employee care. But in each case, including a VP of engineering, these future managers will work with the CEO instead of separately to take care of “things like personal growth, talent acquisition, structuring teams, and making sure everyone is working cohesively.”

The CEO’s role in crafting company culture is a tricky one. It’s hands-on when managing performance—like Steel does with OKRs— as well as in recruiting the best talent to be found and mapping goals across the organization. But it’s hands-off when you recruit for crucial skills over absolutely perfect culture fit, allow every employee to speak their mind, and add a lot of people quickly to meet competitive demand. Steel handles his involvement in his culture gracefully. As GoGuardian continues helping children everywhere learn, Steel is learning volumes of his own on how to delicately grow a company with great people. 

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