“Culture is so important, it can make or break your business”

Your team are listening and watching carefully to see if what you say, do, and how you behave, match the values that your company espouses.
June 26, 2023

An interview with Bernhard Niesner: co-founder and CEO of busuu




Highlights include

  • 12 behavioural tools you can use to effectively embed and reinforce your company's culture 
  • The difference between "culture embedding" tools and "culture reinforcing" tools
  • How Bernhard rebuilt his team and focused down on the culture after learning a valuable lesson about embedding and living the values at busuu
  • How having clearly defined values makes life easier and clearer for everyone.
  • How Bernhard has integrated the values across busuu, into the hiring process, OKRs, performance reviews and bonus evaluation.



As founder of your company, it is your job to demonstrate to your team, based on your company’s values, how to behave, make decisions, and take action. Your team are listening carefully to what you say, watching what you do and how you behave, to learn what’s really important to you, and if what you say, do, and how you behave, match the values that your company espouses. If your words or behaviours are conflicted, the conflicts and inconsistencies become part of the CulturalDNA.


Your team are listening carefully to what you say, watching what you do and how you behave


It’s not enough just to talk about and write down your values on a piece of paper or put them up on posters on the wall. The 12 behavioural tools, as defined by Edgar Schein and described below can be used to effectively embed core values into your company. They suggest how you can give structure to your natural leadership style, and allow for the ability for you to better manage your communication. Being aware of how these 12 tools can impact your business will enable you to take control and be more effective in the way you communicate, and therefore embed the values into your company.


The primary tools are culture embedding tools and these will have the greatest impact on your team. The secondary tools are culture reinforcers and will only work if they are in alignment with the primary tools. If your actions and behaviours do not represent your mission or your values, it doesn’t matter where they are written down or how many times they are discussed and promoted.


Six Primary Embedding Tools

  • What the CEO and leadership team consistently pay attention to, measure and control.
  • How the CEO and leadership team react to failure, disasters, critical issues and other company crises
  • How the CEO and leadership team invest or allocate funds in the business
  • How the CEO and leadership team coach, teach and educate
  • How and what the CEO and leadership team reward and give status to
  • How the CEO and leadership team recruits, promotes and fires people.


Six Secondary Reinforcing Tools

  • Purpose, Vision, Mission, Values and other formal statements from the business
  • Myths, stories about team members and important events
  • Rituals of the company
  • Company design and structure
  • Company systems and procedures
  • Physical space design


I have known Bernhard Niesner, co-founder and CEO of busuu, since 2012, when he relocated busuu to London from Spain. Bernhard is a charismatic leader, and he believes that if you want your team to really live the values you need to remind them every day, first and foremost through your behaviour. We sat down to discuss busuu’s culture and values, how ‘dusting off’ the company’s values enabled him to make better hiring decisions, and why appointing a Culture Manager for your company is a worthwhile investment.






How did you go about creating your values?


In the early days, values were kind of implicit. We didn’t talk that much about it and the core team of busuu was pretty much aligned. Once we moved the company over to London and started to grow over 10, we had to be more explicit about our values.  So we sat down and created the list of values that were important to me and represented the types of people I personally wanted to work with and the type of company I wanted to build. This was really more a theoretical exercise and I unfortunately didn’t really apply the values to the day to day running of the company or embed them into our processes. This turned out to be a big mistake because two years ago during a very challenging period for the company, I realised that the vast majority of the team we had built, did not match the values of the company. After coming through the challenging period, where a lot of the team left the company, I decided to dust off the values and really integrate them into the business. I have basically rebuilt the busuu team over the past two years with people who match our values.



Initially the list consisted of 4 values; Trust, Effectiveness, Ambition and Curiosity, which very much matched to who I am and the team I wanted to build.  Being Austrian I believe in effectiveness and Efficiency, as an entrepreneur I have always had great Ambition, Trust is a key principle for me in business and in my personal life and I am a Curious person by nature. I decided to add Happiness to the values list after the difficult period for the business, as I realised that I didn’t want to spend time with negative people. Being in an environment that encourages happiness was what I wanted to build.


I created the TEACH acronym, which really helps with relating our values to what we do, that is help people learn languages and it helps our team remember our values.

  • Trust: Trust & be trusted
  • Effectiveness: Create results that matter
  • Ambition: Go the extra mile
  • Curiosity: Learn & share
  • Happiness: Love what you do




What has been the impact been since you re-launched the company’s values?


The impact of embedding and integrating the values into the core of the business has been really positive. Having clearly defined values makes life easier and clearer for everyone. It is now more obvious for everybody in the team what is expected of each one of them, in executing their roles. We now have simpler Yes/No decisions based on whether a course of action will match our values or not. For example, if there is no fit with our values we don’t hire that candidate. It doesn’t matter if the candidate is the best engineer from Google or Facebook, if they don’t match the values they won’t be hired.


The values have definitely helped us build a great team at busuu over the last two years. Another positive from the values integration into hiring is, if we do make a hiring mistake it is extremely obvious, we can see it really quickly and take action. In one or two cases the person we hired has realised the mismatch himself and left the company of his own accord. In the past we would give the candidate who wasn’t fitting in or performing to expectations some time because they were trying really hard. Now it is so obvious early on. We don’t waste the candidate’s time in the wrong company and we don’t want to waste our time with the wrong candidate. Things are done a certain way at busuu and if a person doesn’t fit the culture then it’s better that they work in an environment where they do fit the culture.


It’s not just about the values, there are of course a number of factors at work, but the business has never performed better and the values have had a major impact. Our people are happier, they are more effective and retention has improved. We do an anonymous quarterly employee satisfaction survey with the tool called Peakon where we also ask our team to make suggestions on how we can further improve our culture. At the moment our employee satisfaction is at 8/10. The advantage of the anonymous survey is that it gives the management team and me an insight into whether things are moving in a positive or negative direction, and we therefore know what’s working as well as what to focus on before it’s too late.





How have you changed your hiring process to include the values?


We have a two-stage interview process. During the first stage the candidate will be interviewed based on the facts around their skills, experience and achievements. At the second stage, Corinna, our Culture Manager, or I will interview the candidate evaluating their cultural fit. We ask specific questions about each of the TEACH values. Trust is the most challenging to dig down into but we have developed questions that allow us to explore the candidate’s trustworthiness.


In the past I made the mistake of allowing too much flexibility around hiring which had a negative effect on our culture. This resulted in the wrong hires being made by managers whose values were not aligned with busuu’s values, which in turn resulted them hiring people into the company whose values don’t match.



How do you use the values in new staff onboarding?


We’ve started to create values based training for each new employee. All new starters from the last quarter will be grouped together to go through the values and to learn how to live by them. In the training we will give specific examples of what value fit looks like and what it doesn’t and test the new staffers on their understanding of what the busuu culture means.


busuu sets very high standards and the guidelines are very concrete so that there is little room for interpretations. We need to train our new staffers about what our culture means. If we do this well our values and culture become stronger and stronger.



What do you think the cultural difference is between running a sub 10 person team and a team of 50 plus?


The values are implicit in a smaller team and the team naturally lives the values because the businesses values are their values. As you get bigger, more than 4 or 5 team members, the values need to be made explicit to ensure that new staffers are aligned with the values. If the team grows rapidly you need to develop a communication plan around the culture and values and communicate about them on a regular basis.





How do you manage the busuu culture?


We are now a team of 50 staff and Corinna Stuck is the Culture Manager and she spends about 25% of her time focusing on our culture. Culture is so important, it can make or break a business. So someone constantly needs to be thinking about it and managing it. It’s the soul of the business and we need to keep the fire burning. We also need someone who can keep the team aligned and where needed someone should be responsible for taking corrective action. We are all so busy doing our jobs so we need someone who can represent the culture and remind us about it when necessary.



How have you built culture and values into busuu?


I am continually looking for more ways to bake the values into the company. The busuu values are integrated across the company, into the hiring process, OKRs, performance reviews and bonus evaluation. The team members are given ratings to describe how they lived the values that quarter – whether they need improvement, are meeting or exceeding expectations.


Really integrating the values into the sharp end of the business like bonus evaluation, allows the team to clearly understand the extent to which values must be lived, that they are not just hollow words. I believe that your culture is represented in everything you do in the company. So when you walk into a business you should be able to smell the culture – it should be something that you sense and it carries across into everything the company does; the way how you are greeted, the way how meetings are run, the way how people follow up, these are all part of the culture of the company.



What perks do you offer or events do you run to enhance the culture at busuu?


We do events like Hackdays, Lunch & Learn, pop-up team breakfasts and an annual weekend abroad. A couple of weeks ago I took the company to Majorca to say thanks and reward them for the hard work everyone has put in this year. 




Well done for getting this far! Read on if you want to know more about the 12 behavioural tools.



12 behavioural tools for embedding values into your company


Primary Embedding Tools


What do you consistently pay attention to, measure and control?

  • What you systematically pay attention to, whether it’s something you measure, control, reward or even notice or comment on.
  • Casual comments, remarks and questions that are consistent about a certain area of the business.



You can communicate a message almost subliminally if as a leader you are aware of this and systematically pay attention to things you deem important. Consistency of message is more important than intensity. By the same token inconsistency and mixed messages will result in confusion and doubt.

Examples of signal opportunities

  • Define the first item on every meeting agenda to be about X
  • Ask the same question on a daily basis
  • Reward progress with regards to X
  • Create other incentives to recognise progress with X
  • Include X in weekly/monthly/quarterly reporting
  • Include X in planning/budgeting discussions
  • Use visible emotional reactions when a core value like X is violated – Nb. don’t blame the individual, blame the company or be embarrassed for the company
  • Think about what you claim is important but don’t actually react to. Is the lack of reaction due to it being not that important or are you slacking on upholding the values?
  • Think about where you are inconsistent. Inconsistency results in culture conflict and although your employees will tolerate contradiction from the founder the developing culture will reflect how the team deal with inconsistencies and contradictions.


How do you react to failure, disasters, critical issues and other company crises?

  • How you react to these situations reveals important underlying values, motivations and behaviours to the team.
  •  Crises result in heightened emotional involvement, which increases the learning intensity. Crises elevate anxiety and our human instinct is to reduce anxiety. People will learn the behaviour required to reduce anxiety.
  • A leader can use a real or perceived crisis around company survival to embed a work ethic.
  • How leaders deal with layoffs reveals their true values about the importance of their people.


How you and your team invest or allocates funds in the business?

  • Firstly, how budgets are created reveals a leader’s beliefs
  • The choice of goals, how they will be accomplished and the processes to be used to accomplish those goals are insightful into the leader’s belief about the company’s competencies and appetite for risk

How you coach, teach and educate?

  • Informal messages are more effective at transmitting the leader’s values vs staged communication.
  • Situations where a leader instructs or coaches his team will demonstrate how important that subject is


How and what you reward, and give status to?

  • Performance appraisals, promotions, and other rewards are opportunities for your team to learn what is important to you as a leader. The nature of the beahiour that is rewarded or punished and the nature of the actual rewards or punishments send a message about what a leader prioritises and values.
  • To ensure that values and desired behaviours are learned and embedded a leader must create an appraisal, reward and promotion system that is in line with the values and behaviours expected from the team.
  • A leader’s daily behaviour and values messaging must match up and be consistent with the longer term appraisal, reward and promotion system.


How you hire, promote and fire?

  • Hiring new team members is the most effective way of demonstrating whether a leader is living the values or not. Your team will pick it up very quickly whether you have hired someone who fits the CulturalDNA of the company.
  • Values can be reinforced or diluted depending on who is or is not promoted/fired.



Secondary Reinforcement Tools


In a start-up the secondary reinforcement tools only work if they are consistent with the primary tools. When they are consistent they build company beliefs, when they are inconsistent they are either a source of internal conflict or simply ignored by the team. 



Purpose, Vision, Mission, Values and other formal statements from the business

  • Writing the values down on a piece of paper or hanging posters on the wall allows the leader to emphasize the core parts of the CulturalDNA that need to be remembered by the team.


Myths, stories about team members and important events

  • A company story reinforces values, behaviours and motivations and teaches these to the new team members. Stories can be used to enhance the CulturalDNA and make it more real to the listener.


Rituals of the company

  • Rituals and rites formalise values, motivations and behaviours made clear by the primary embedding tools.


Company design and structure

The initial design of the company and the evolution that a company goes through allows the founders and leaders to embed their assumptions about the task at hand, what’s required to execute the task, what the team needs to look like and what communication structure is required.

  • Some founders build tight hierarchies and centralized controls in order to ultimately be able to make decisions themselves.
  • Other founders build decentralized companies pushing decision making authority down into the company, because they trust and believe in the individuals in their teams.
  • Yet other founders build matrixed companies that more broadly require negotiated solutions


Company systems and procedures

  • Recurrent daily/weekly/monthly/annual tasks, routines and procedures   bring formal structure and predictability to a company.
  • Systems and procedures can be used to reinforce the message that the leader values.
  • Companies that do not reinforce through systems and procedures open the door to weakening their message and inconsistencies in the CulturalDNA.


Physical space design

  • The physical space, all the visible features of the company, can be used to reinforce the leader’s messaging towards customers, partners and new employees.

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