‘Secret Sauce’ 3 - Great people build a great culture (and vice-versa)

I’ve written in recent weeks about two of the ingredients in the Aconex Secret Sauce – the business model built on platform neutrality and unlimited use and a focus on customer success that drove resource allocation. This week, I’ll look at the third quality that, with these two, helped the business become what it was.

I am an absolute believer that the culture we built at Aconex was critical to our success. It was the first Secret Sauce ingredient that we recognised as such and, I think, the one that almost every employee over the years has related to most.

Sowing the seeds of culture

Although the ways we communicated and sustained team culture adapted as we grew from a plucky start-up to a global business, the origin of what we later called ‘the Aconex culture’ had a simplicity that made it genuine, resilient and adaptable.

Rob and I, as co-founders, hired people that we respected, trusted, and wanted to work with every day. It was that simple. When there are just two of you, that’s a degree of freedom (and responsibility) that you have to run with. Before long there were 50 of us, then 100. For much of the Aconex journey, Rob or I met with every proposed new hire as a final check but as our head count grew globally, that wasn’t scalable.

We placed trust in our leaders to hire well and developed an induction program to spread and reinforce our unique culture throughout Aconex. We ran an induction every month or two with every new Aconex employee, from all over the world, coming to Melbourne for a week. The purpose was to develop a deep connection to our culture among new employees and to train them in their respective roles. We wanted all new staff to bleed orange (the core Aconex corporate colour) and share the values and behaviours that would enable our growth. The induction weeks were also a lot of fun with a diverse group of people from around the world coming together to share the start of their new job at Aconex.

I think it’s important to say that ‘good cultural fit’ is not the same as ‘likely to agree with me’. In fact, the opposite. One of our values was to challenge what’s accepted, so fitting in at Aconex meant challenging and being open to challenge and debate. That’s what we thrived on and, of course, led to the best outcomes.

Defining Purpose, Values and Culture

Although our culture had deep roots and grew organically, we got to the point where it needed tending, like a maturing garden. This meant codifying and communicating internally things like our purpose and values, which was essential when we were adding 30-40 new staff a month.

Because there was a ‘know it when you see it’ quality to the culture, it felt a little awkward when we first tried to document it. Maybe that was an Australian aversion to taking such things too seriously. But as went through defining our values, with staff consultation, the process and the result became an incredible touch point to reinforce and sustain our culture.

Our purpose became Connecting teams to build the world and our values were listed and explained:

  • We put our clients first

  • We challenge what’s accepted

  • We get on with it

  • We do the right thing

  • We are passionate

This approach helped us to build a global business with a diverse group of people from all over the world. Our values united us. We worked with a sense of fun – the enjoyment of working hard and playing hard. We internalised our strong customer focus and, whatever our functional role, we all wanted the right customer outcome. We built an open company with a flat structure, with the freedom to challenge decisions and to make mistakes and learn from them. Anybody could speak openly to the most senior manager. Leaders had a real picture of what was happening across the company.

Our values came to underpin everything from hiring, to evaluations, to professional development. These values created trust, accelerated learning and encouraged better decision-making. But most importantly they created long lasting friendships. I think the fact that we operated with the same core values for over ten years says everything about their relevance and importance.

Keeping the culture alive

Defining your culture, even with staff engagement and buy in, is only the start. Sustaining it and keeping it relevant takes ongoing effort. Some of the things we did at Aconex to reinforce our culture included:

  • A structured induction program, as described above

  • A regular program of town hall meetings with the exec and leadership team

  • Making time for a ‘customer moment’ at the start of every meeting – a learning or a good news story – much as an construction company makes time for a safety moment

  • Annual regional conferences and a global Sales Conference every 18 months

  • Quarterly employee engagement surveys, with feedback on results and a commitment to report on how we had addressed any issues raised

  • Company-wide sharing of customer satisfaction surveys (we used the NPS method)

  • Creating an environment in which people loved to work. That took quite different forms in different parts of the world. Beer taps were a firm Friday favourite in Australia, but team lunches, birthday cakes, morning teas and volunteering days were just as important elsewhere

Developing – and then defining and protecting - a genuine culture helped Aconex attract and retain exceptional talent.

We nurtured a leadership style that reinforced the culture and placed it at the centre of work life. Our leaders were open and accessible. They showed the same passion about our purpose and mission that we expected of others. They were outcome-driven but balanced this with passion and fun, and we developed firm friendships that have outlasted our time with Aconex.

I believe that all three ‘Secret Sauce’ elements were key to the success of Aconex - a unique business model, a relentless focus on the customer and our great culture. They worked together to create the company environment that enabled us to drive the digital disruption of the construction industry and to transform the delivery of projects.