AirWalk’s Values

AirWalk turned ten last year. As we approached that milestone, we found ourselves reflecting on what we had achieved so far and planning how we would take the business to the next level.

As a consultancy, we are first and foremost a people business. Our team and their collective expertise are our product. There is nothing more important to us than creating a culture that allows us to hire, develop and retain great people.

But what does culture actually mean? And how could we figure out what ours was and make sure we preserved the best parts of it as we grow?

We wanted to uncover the behaviours, beliefs and processes that had made us successful, and make sure that those were properly reflected in our core values. Were we really the things we said we were?

 

First, we had to agree on what we meant by Culture.

My belief is simply that you are your culture.

As Simon Sinek puts it:

 “Your company doesn’t have a culture, it is a culture”.

A culture is all the things a company already does. It’s the way decisions are made; the way employees are treated, and the way work is delivered. It’s what the goals are, how feedback is given, who gets promoted and why, how people are compensated, what the office is like, what relationships form outside of work, how people talk, how conflict is handled, how hard people work and what’s celebrated.

 

It is the melting pot of values held by every single person in the business, filtered through the companies set of accepted or promoted beliefs and behaviours.

Culture is never static. It changes every day. Every time a decision gets made or a person gets hired, the culture shifts imperceptibly.

So, it stands to reason that it’s impossible to create or transfer a culture. You cannot sit around a board-room table, decide what you want your new culture to be, and copy write it into existence. You can only evolve your culture from the bits that already exist.

 

So how did we set about uncovering what AirWalk’s real culture and values were? And why did it matter?

First and foremost, a lot had changed over the last few years. Our strategy for the first 8 years had been to leverage contractors to deliver projects. We’d done that very successfully, but in order to scale we would need to build highly specialist permanent capabilities.

Over the next 2.5 years we grew from 38 consultants (10 permanent & 28 associate) delivering into a few main customers in the U.K, to 120 consultants (60 permanent & 60 associate) delivering into a much broader client base in the UK and Hong Kong.

That kind of growth has to have affected our culture. Culture, after-all, is a by-product of who joins, who stays and who leaves (or is fired from) a company.

When I joined AirWalk in 2018 I had a strong sense of what our Culture was on an individual level. Even though we had only a few permanent employees, my experience was one of working with exceptionally talented people who all supported each other in delivering great work and had fun doing it.

Sitting atop all of that was a feeling of absolute trust and freedom. The message was that I was the expert and I was going to be allowed to do what I do, however I wanted to do it. Importantly, there were some unspoken guardrails that were inherently understood. By providing a view on the quality of the work we are expected to deliver, I had the freedom to conceptualise and drive the delivery of a number of initiatives that would fundamentally impact the organisation (a new progression framework and appraisal system for example) knowing that I was doing the right thing.

As we began to grow rapidly, it was this freedom and trust that I wanted to preserve.

Our philosophy has always been to hire the best people we can and get out of their way. But at scale, this can only work if those guardrails and principles are preserved and documented.

In his 2013 book “Don’t f*@* up the culture” – Airbnb founder Brian Chesky wrote:

“Why is culture so important to a business? Here is a simple way to frame it. The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing.”

We wanted to give everyone the ability to work with freedom. To make decisions and pursue opportunities knowing that they had a set of reference points to refer back to that would allow them to do the right thing.

We had also just been thrust into the Covid era. As a consultancy, we have always done much of our work on client sites. The challenges that come with a largely remote workforce were not new to us, but there are significant challenges around scaling a company having suddenly become fully remote.

We have worked hard to make this new normal work for us. Our onboarding process has been overhauled, we think really hard about employee engagement and we communicate differently, including being much more mindful about how we approach informal communication.

But one of the things that came up time and time again when we onboarded people, was how hard it was to gain important context about what it means to be AirWalk. Previously we could rely on some learning by osmosis, but it can be difficult for new and less experienced employees to get up to speed when there is no-one to mirror and no neighbour to turn to and ask for help. New members of the team could previously pick up on the nuances of how we talk to each other and clients, how we make decisions, how we handle conflict and what processes we use to deliver our work, by working alongside their colleagues. This is missing now.

This is where core values matter.

What do we mean by Values?

Most companies have some kind of core values. They’re usually aspirational buzzwords; things like Honesty, Integrity, Excellence and Inspiration. When asked what their culture is, it is these words companies point to; if they can remember them at all (according to research 85% of leaders don’t know their own values.)

There are a few important questions to ask about these type of values:

How were they arrived at?  

Mostly, values are arrived at in one of two ways.

  • As a marketing exercise – an external agency interviews some employees, the founders and a few clients, and arrives at a set of core values based on words that seem to sum up the interviewees experience of working for or with the business.
  • As a boardroom exercise. Founders think they should have a set of core values, so sit round the boardroom table, decide on a couple of aspirational words or phrases they think sound kind of inspirational, and get some posters made

Who are they for?

More often than not it feels as if values are created solely for the benefit of customers, as if potential clients will decide whether to work with or buy from you based on the values on the website. It seems to be all about acquiring customers, growing the business or delivering great customer service.

My view is different.

As Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, puts it

“Our number one priority is company culture. Our whole belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand will just happen naturally on its own.”

I believe that if we can build a strong culture that shows our employees that we care for them and trust them, they will treat our customers with that same care and trust. The rest looks after itself.

What actions do they actually drive?

Most values are nouns. Values are things we DO. They are things we live by. And you can’t do nouns, you can only do verbs.

We didn’t want our values to be a whiteboard list of the usual qualities that everyone thinks all good people and organizations should have. True values are not descriptive of things we want to be, they’re about things we intend to do.

They should promote action and drive the right behaviours

How often are they referred to?

Most companies arrive at a set of values, print out some posters, then never talk about them again. I know we were guilty of this. The values exist, but for what? They aren’t referred to in the hiring process to filter out capable people who aren’t a culture fit. Colleagues don’t shout out for each other when they see the values being lived. They’re not spoken about in all-hands or referred to when making decisions. There are probably no initiatives or processes in the company that could be pointed to as happening “because of the values”.

So really, what’s the point!

This is where we found ourselves earlier this year. AirWalk had a set of core values already, but they didn’t feel like they represented what it was to work here in 2020. Here they are:

  • Principled – We have created a culture of honesty that allows us to challenge our clients and each other when we need to, but to always do so with respect and integrity.
  • Engaging – Our interactions with clients and colleagues are how we are remembered. We build open and honest relationships that go beyond metrics and provide true long-term value.
  • Supportive – We empower our clients and colleagues to succeed by fostering a culture of teamwork and collaboration, leveraging our collective expertise to deliver the best in all we do.
  • Diligent – What we do, we do well. We are deeply committed to each other and to our customers and work tirelessly to deliver to the very highest standards.
  • Smart – We solve our clients most challenging problems by building teams of incredibly smart people who have the freedom to challenge and influence.
  • Productive – We are driven to deliver, and always hold ourselves accountable for results. Everything we do translates to action. We get stuff done!

All things considered; these weren’t bad. But they were written when we didn’t have any employees, and anecdotally our team didn’t feel as if we were “living them” day to day.

We wanted to get this right, so in early 2020 we set about refreshing our core values.

 

Reimagining our Values

We always knew we would involve the whole company in this process.

We were absolutely clear that this was never about sticking a new set of buzzwords on the wall. This was about uncovering what our culture already was, turning that into a set of values and behaviours that we think will help preserve that culture, and aligning the whole busines around them.

We wanted to know what our employees experience of working here was. How did they feel about AirWalk, the work we do, the future and their colleagues? And importantly, what sort of AirWalk would they be proud to work in as we grow?

Initially though, we wanted to find out whether our hunch was right. Did we really need to change our current values?

In February this year we held a strategy afternoon, where amongst other things we spent a few hours talking to the whole business about our current values and getting feedback from the team on what they meant to them.

We asked questions like:

“Do you know what our values are?”, “What do they mean to you?” and “Do they represent what it means to work at AirWalk?”

And got answers like:

“Ummmm not really”, “Not a lot” and“No”, interspersed with a smattering of tumbleweed.

Point proven then!

We then formed two groups. The wider group was made up of three people from each discipline, all of whom worked at different levels. The smaller group was made up of one person from each of those teams who would represent their team in a central working group.

Over the course of several weeks we met multiple times to debate our current values, talk about principles that were important to us individually and as a group, suggest various approaches to our new values, and talk about how we would ensure this set of values became fundamental to how we run the business.

Out of those sessions came four main themes:

  • We do really good work with really good people
  • Being a team matters to us
  • We feel trusted to do the right thing
  • We all care about and want to play a part in shaping the future of AirWalk

Here then were the foundations of our values. These were the things that people in the business actually felt about working here. They’re the things that make them proud to come to work and excited for the future. We now needed to distil these principles into a set of values that are actionable, quantifiable and drive the right behaviours.

From these guiding principles came five values. Five statements that sum up what AirWalk is all about. That give context around how we work, how we make decisions, how we communicate, how we treat each other and what is important to us.

Presenting the AirWalk Values

  • Pursue Excellence: We are passionate and enthusiastic about our work and take pride in what we deliver
  • Collaborate: We support and trust our colleagues and clients. We are respectful and dependable
  • Do The Right Thing: We act with integrity and honesty at all times
  • Be Ambitious: Complexity is our strong suit. We look for opportunities to innovate, be challenged, learn and grow
  • Bring Your Personality: We are human. Our people are independently minded and professional but also personable and authentic

What do we mean by these statements?

The next step was to provide some real context. The power of good values comes from the alignment of the organisation around those values, not from the actual values themselves. On their own these values don’t drive action and each of them will mean something different to different people.

So, in order to tell people what we mean by each value, we have developed a number of sub-values. These are behaviour statements – the bits that define how the main values might be lived out day to day.

They aren’t exhaustive, but they seek to clarify what each value means to us at AirWalk and to provide some examples of the types of things our team might be able to do in order to live up to each value. They remove ambiguity.

Here is the end result:

So, there you have it! Those are the AirWalk values, each contextualised with six actionable statements which we hope will drive the type of behaviours that have got us to where we are today.

 

What happens next?

What happens next is really the most important bit. All of this will have been for nothing if we triumphantly roll out our new values then do nothing with them. Ultimately our culture is not what we think it is, it is what our team thinks it is. It is what we go on to do with these values that will shape what our culture becomes.

Firstly, we are going to talk about them, a lot. Internally and externally. We’ll build them into our hiring through a values based interview framework – the first test will come when we have to turn down someone who is highly competent but not a good fit for our culture.

They’ll be front and centre during onboarding. We might even create a quiz to make sure they’ve sunk in! We’ll no doubt plaster them all over our office, and they’ll definitely make their way onto some swag. We’ll encourage everyone to call out the right behaviours when they see someone doing something well, and to challenge where they see there is room for improvement.

Most importantly, we have committed as a business that in 12 months’ time we will be able to point at several new initiatives that we have started based on these values, and decisions we have made because of them.

We are absolutely clear that these values are a two way deal. They set out the behaviours that we expect to see in our team, but they also require us as a business to change.

Whether it’s making difficult decisions around hiring and firing, providing better training and development opportunities, communicating more openly with the business about important decisions, or promoting social impact initiatives, we have a load of ideas already that we are committed to exploring in order to be able to say that we are running the business in a way that aligns with our values.

Ultimately the real test will come the first time we have to make a difficult decision. When we are faced with the easy wrong thing or the difficult right thing. When we have to walk away from revenue, part company with an employee, not hire someone or have a difficult conversation with a colleague. It’s then that we will really know whether this was worth it.

For now, we re really excited to be entering the next phase in our journey with a set of values that really reflect the business we are today and can help shape the type of business we go on to become. We’re really proud of them and hope our team can be too.

 

 

We didn’t want our values to be a whiteboard list of the usual qualities that everyone thinks all good people and organizations should have. True values are not descriptive of things we want to be, they’re about things we intend to do.