Having a strong set of values lays the foundation for a strong culture – even as your culture evolves

By Marty Parker

Mission, vision, values are core elements of any organization’s plan. While all three are vital to a company’s success, values really set the foundation for what a company’s culture will look like – and strong culture drives performance.

I sat down with Alim Somani, Managing Director at Hatch Digital, to talk about his experience building culture, scaling culture through both growth and acquisition, and why he thinks corporate culture success starts with a strong set of values.

The interview has been edited for length, but you can listen to the full conversation here.

Marty Parker:
The differentiation of your culture, the behaviors that made you, you, how did that evolve or change on those curves of the corporate lifecycle?

Alim Somani:
I think if you’d asked me when we were first starting, one of the things we would have said when we were 10 people at a staff meeting was, “We are a different kind of consulting company. We promise you, you’re never going to have to do that bureaucratic stuff, like fill out a time sheet. We’re just not that kind of company.”

Easy to say when you’re 10 people, to say, “That’s our culture, right? We’re renegades.” Get to 50 people where you’re doing work for 20 different clients, and get to 100 people, then it became something that, guess what, people have to fill out time sheets. Understanding that, no, our culture wasn’t that we didn’t fill in time sheets, right? What’s important is values.

Culture can change and that’s okay. Culture can evolve and culture can mature, and I would actually argue that it needs to as an organization changes and matures. The culture that we had on day one when we started Infusion was different than when we sold at 700 people, and it’s different than the culture that Avanade at 30,000 or so people has, and that’s different than the culture that Accenture, their parent company of 400,000 people has. But what remained constant at Infusion was, we had a set of values that was increasingly important.

From values, you have to build a set of behaviors when you’re running a business that are consistent with those values, but that also suit the time and place where you are with your business. When we were 10 people, having a behavior that said, “We’re not asking you to fill out time cards because that’s bureaucratic and we want you to focus all your time in doing well by the client,” that was a behavior that was consistent with our values. Now, when we got to 500 people, we had other behaviors that were consistent with our values; the behaviors can change. Then when you choose the behaviors that are consistent with your values and you repeat them over and over again, that’s what makes your culture.

Your culture can change over time and it can evolve, but what’s important is that it’s grounded in the same values.  Our culture evolved, our values remained the same, but I would say if you looked at our late culture compared to our early culture, it was still recognizable. It was still consistent, and if you grew with it, you would still feel very comfortable and it wouldn’t feel out of sorts.

Marty Parker:
Tough question, I recognize, but in your experience, is it reasonable to expect your culture to allow you to scale globally, or do you really have to address and make accommodations for culture, not values here, on a region by region basis?

Alim Somani:
I think one is, you can’t compromise on your values and you need to insist on them and you need to lead on them and you need to be listening for them. And if you don’t see them exhibited in everything, you need to step in as a leader and make changes, or you need to not bring the person on. If you don’t believe that your values will resonate, you need to not do business with that place. Sometimes that goes for clients as well. We are a very client focused organization, but there’s times when things fail because there just wasn’t an alignment of values.

Now, culture is interesting. I think there’s a concept in business of large organizations having mono-cultures. You often hear, and this is probably not fair in current times, because I’m sure there are different organization now, but you hear traditionally about the IBM, right? The guy in the blue shirt, and if you work at IBM, you’re a certain kind of person … I think there’s some very successful mono-cultures out there, but I believe the real opportunity to grow and scale and do broad sets of things is to actually have a polyculture. To allow for different cultures to emerge that are rooted in the same values. They can have certain elements that are common, and sometimes it’s important for certain elements to be common, but I think that’s a powerful thing.

Actually one of my American colleagues said to me once, he said, “Look, you take for granted the fact that you’re Canadian. In your head, maybe you think, ‘Oh, you’re Canadian. It’s not that different than Americans,'” but he said, “Canadians are cultural chameleons. You’re naturally empathetic. You’re used to adapting to different cultures.” I think in some ways it came a little bit natural to the Canadian leaders in our business, but there’s no way… I don’t think you can have a company succeed where people are thriving and loyal and building in a location like… at our peak, we had offices in Dubai, we had offices in Poland, we had offices in London, we had offices in Texas, we had offices in Toronto, all over the world where the culture is exactly the same.

Now, the values have to be the same, but the cultures can change differently. Then the key is, the magic is… a big part of it for us was, we recognized we’re a human capital business, and we recognized that it was about hiring and recruiting the best people, and our values were all about empowerment. Empower yourself, do right by the client, grow yourself, and if you’re following those things, good things will come. How do you create a culture that’s grounded in your values, that takes into account the needs of your business, but also the individuals and their cultures of where they’re coming from to get the best out of people?

Marty Parker:
Not only did you do it well, in 2017, Infusion sold to Avanade, it was a big success, but I know you played a big role not only in the sale, but probably, more importantly for both organizations, on the integration of the two businesses. In doing that, how did you address the bringing together of these cultures, both as part of transaction, but also in the real world as you were integrating these two businesses’ cultures and, of course, values together?

Alim Somani:
I would say the hardest part was cultural integration. The thing that I, as a leader, probably underestimated the most was the difficulty of that. But having said that, it went well. It went well if you were to judge it by the standards of the acquisition, but it was still a challenge and by no means physically did it go perfect.

I think the first thing was, we were deliberate. We were building a business at Infusion, and at some point there was going to be a transaction and that mattered because that was a big asset, but this was also our life’s work. These were people that had entrusted their careers to us and everything. For us it was really important to find an organization that was a strong value spend. I had known the team at Avanade for years and I had known people that had gone and worked there and everything. We only entered into serious discussions knowing that there would be a strong fit in values. That was one.

Number two, and this was a tactical thing that helped, that Avanade is 80 per cent-ish owned by Accenture, and they were going through their own transformation. IT business in general was transforming, and they were transforming to become a company that did less IT managed services and more creation and more custom work and more digital transformation. That was a strength of Infusion. That was something we did well. When they bought us, they were also looking to learn from us, and I think that makes a difference. They came in with this growth mindset about the acquisition.

The other thing which I would say is tactical is, they were also at a stage where they were trying to form their own brand and identity separate from Accenture… not separate, but kid of, “What was Avanade versus Accenture.” Up until that point, for the most part, they had co-located in offices with Accenture. After the acquisition, Infusion at offices around the world, they physically moved into most of the locations where we had offices. The office in Toronto, that was an Infusion office. The headquarters in New York was an Infusion office. The Houston office was an Infusion office. Whether it was deliberate or osmosis, a lot of Infusion’s culture manifested itself in the offices. We had events where people came
together. People valued what they saw and they became that. That was a big part of the success.

Now, some of the challenges, I would say, come back to what we talked about earlier on. You have a set of values, and then you build a set of behaviors that are tied to those values, but also mapped to the realities of your business. Those oftentimes are a factor of size and scale. When you grow from 10 people to 700 over 10 years, those behaviors that you need to change happen gradually. When you go from a 700 person company to a whatever thousand person company that has some policies set by the 400,000, it’s a big step.  After a year, there’s people that decided that it wasn’t necessarily the culture that wasn’t right for them, but they just didn’t like working for a big company. They wanted to work for a smaller company and that’s okay. There were similar values, but I think sometimes the frustration came in the step up change in behaviors that are just required to run a larger company.