If, as Simon Sinek says: “...people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”—then culture is what tells them why they should buy from you.
It’s the compass that guides decision-making at every level within the agency—from how to write an email to how to deal with clients. It allows team members to understand what’s expected of them and operate powerfully in alignment with the agency’s goals.
And when it works, culture is a fuel.
It’s what makes the organization’s vision and purpose clear to people, allowing them to connect with it, get behind it—and push. A productive agency culture fosters commitment among team members to the agency’s mission and the willingness to go above and beyond. Culture is what helps fire people up to get to work every morning, makes them want to stick around for years, and has them advocate passionately for the brand to customers. In short, it gets compelling results.
We didn’t start out knowing this.
I wish I could say that we always knew what we wanted Axelerant’s culture to be like. But that wasn’t the case.
The Axelerant we see today wasn’t conceived the way it is now. When my co-founder and I started the agency as an idea back in 2005, we started small, and without a very well thought out organizational vision. We wanted to do good work, team up with the right kind of people, be part of more projects, and be profitable. We didn’t have the experience of growing an agency’s culture.
Over time, we saw what happens when culture isn’t paid attention to—around us, and by making mistakes of our own. The question of culture is one that arose out of the need for positive sustainability. We realized that if we wanted our agency to be a lasting entity, independent of us, it had to be a place that people felt connected to.
That’s the journey we’ve been on ever since.
People come first.
The Axelerant that we speak of now began to take shape in 2012, when we started building a team, and trying to make a name for ourselves in the Drupal space. It was then that we really focused on our vision to create a structured organization, but without location constraints. We started with distributed offices in cities like Hyderabad and Srinagar, and gradually became completely location independent.
Over time, we drew closer and closer to the less traveled path that we’re on today: choosing to put our people first, always. We wanted to be successful, but also to achieve that success sustainably. We wanted our team members to be thriving, fulfilled, and committed to driving our mission forward—we believe that’s what gets the best results. This talent-first approach is now woven into all strategic decision-making at Axelerant.
Also, as we work with Open Source technologies, we wanted to ensure that we cultivate that same ethos within the organization. This strengthened our desire to be open and generous with each other and our tech communities like Drupal.
Remote teams need a deliberate focus on culture.
Culture is especially important for remote teams, which don’t have the advantages of spontaneous conversation and face-to-face meetings. Remote workers miss out on a lot of information and opportunities that people have instant access to in physical offices. This can mean that it takes longer to build trust. And trust is critical for team members to work together and rely on each other.
How could we build trust when our team members were located far away from each other? We had to show them that they could trust the system. The only way for us to do that was by being transparent in all our dealings.
The first version of our agency values was documented on an Axelerant retreat back in 2014. These have evolved since, but they remain true to the same central idea: a desire to infuse everything we do at Axelerant with meaning and inspiration, and create happiness and fulfilment for our team members.
These are our agency values, and how we live by them.
We have three agency values at Axelerant: Enthusiasm, Kindness, and Openness. And these are woven into all our activities. It was important to us to narrow down and focus on the things that really define us. And as more people who are driven by these core values join our agency, this has helped us build a team of people that really play well together, and are able to pull together in times of need.
Our feedback and recognition system (7geese) is integrated with Slack, and every day, we recognize people who exhibit our agency values directly in meetings, in conversations, and on partner engagements.
This is the value that’s recognized most often among our team members.
Enthusiasm speaks of our excitement at being part of Axelerant, and working with each other on projects and through challenges. We’ve found that if people are not excited about their work, their effort will be hard to sustain over time, naturally. Enthusiasm is part of the way we work, and therefore, essential to who we are organically.
It’s one of the fundamental things we look for when we hire. We seek out people who are excited by what they’re doing, and want to be part of something bigger. We look for those with the desire to learn and iterate by themselves, and persist until they get results.
One of the ways we nurture enthusiasm in the people who join our team is by sponsoring learning and events. We send them out to meet other passionate people, connect with top contributors in the industry, forge new connections and learn new skills. We find dynamic, creative, and fun ways to help people keep growing in their field, and feeling inspired and uplifted by the work they’re doing.
When people bring that vitality into their work, you get a team that’s driven to overcome challenges, push boundaries, and succeed. This is visible in our team members’ sustained focus on improving organizational systems and processes, their continuous participation in and active contribution to the Drupal community, and their willingness to go beyond what’s expected to deliver greater value to our partners.
Some people think of success as requiring a certain degree of ruthlessness. Kindness may not, at face value, seem like an essential component of success, but it is deeply important to our identity, and contributes to our success.
We want to nurture a positive, encouraging environment for our team members, and we do not tolerate behavior that is hurtful, disrespectful, or negligent towards others—against our code of conduct. In every way possible, we try to keep our interactions positive; we praise publicly and share constructive feedback and criticisms with our team members in private.
This approach also carries over into conversations with our partners. We lean towards positivity and generosity in all interactions, particularly when important but difficult conversations must be had. We give others the benefit of the doubt, choosing tact and good judgment over imprudence.
We also hired a life coach full-time to help our team members work through any challenges they might be facing. They work with our team by lending an ear whenever someone needs to air their frustration, mediating between team members through any difficulties, and keeping the team happy and engaged, facilitating kindness through mutual respect.
And we’ve found the best way to nurture kindness is by example. If one person in the team is kind, it inspires others to act the same way. Kindness, in other words, is contagious.
So when one of us is struggling or going through a personal challenge which they share, everyone reaches out with messages and offers of support. That is, individual notes of encouragement, publicly—not compelled, but naturally And when one of us succeeds, we join in to celebrate them as an organization. Kindness invites more kindness, creating an environment that’s positive, productive, and healthy.
This culture of kindness means that our people are highly engaged and uncommonly motivated to help each other as well as our partners in meeting their objectives. Axelerant team members spontaneously go out of their way to offer support through challenging projects, share learning and insights freely, and seek ways to give back to the community. All of this contributes to the success of our engagements, and the accomplishment of our partners’ end goals. This is what empowers us as an organization to be authentically and holistically focused on success.
Radical transparency is something that we've practiced at Axelerant from the beginning. We wanted to build a culture where team members felt like their voices would be heard. We wanted them to be able to be more vocal about things that affect them—their career paths, projects, and organizational decisions, like process and policy changes. And this was only possible if we were willing to openly discuss problems.
We started out with most of our team in India, where sometimes due to cultural and personal factors, it took a long time for people to open up, to start talking openly about things that matter. We had to be patient, try to get to the root of all issues that were brought to us, and consistently demonstrate that what people shared with us wouldn’t be received in a negative way. Setting examples around openness has been an enduring focus of ours.
To that end, we’re transparent with our team members and partners about our efforts, our challenges, as well as any mistakes we’ve made. As far as possible, our chats and threads are kept public. Disclosing certain information internally comes with its own challenges, but in our team, our people have been highly professional, understanding the responsibility that comes with this level of trust. With our partners, our openness helps build confidence. We’re able to have difficult conversations with candor, realizing fair outcomes for all parties involved.
We value feedback from our team members, as this is what helps us get better. We use Officevibe to encourage people to speak freely to us about their struggles, or any unhappiness over decisions made. When we receive negative feedback from team members, we address it publicly, letting everyone know what positive changes we plan to make to solve their problems.
We also use AskNicely to gather feedback from our partners periodically. Insights gleaned from their comments and follow-up conversations help us quickly correct course if there are any challenges, adapt to our partners’ needs, and keep improving the way we do work.
We value dissent when it is productive, because it leads us to making better decisions. Our ability to take new input and rapidly maneuver to adapt to it creates a team that’s fast-moving, nimble, and dynamic. And these are the qualities that allow us to respond to our partners’ evolving needs with speed and precision.
Well-chosen values create positive synergies.
In some ways, our agency values also temper and modulate each other, evening out the dangers of the antonyms or the damaging effects of the disintegration of each. I’ll explain.
Openness without kindness could easily become harsh and discouraging, and we’ve seen this at play. Enthusiasm without openness would mean energies being spent recklessly, unchecked and ineffective. Kindness that’s not buffered by enthusiasm or openness would mean we’d be unable to make meaningful progress, that is we’d be ineffective.
We’re enthusiastic enough to keep propelling each other forward, open enough to share freely and keep each other on target, but kind enough to be gentle and constructive while doing so. That’s what creates a highly energized, positive, and purposeful working environment for us all. And it’s how we win.
And the work is never over.
People ask us how we got our culture right at Axelerant. I don’t think we got it right—it’s just that we’ve stayed highly focused on it, and conscious of the fact that we have to strive get it right. What moves us forward is our constant wrestling with this question of whether we have it right or not. It’s a question we have to continuously ask each other, today and certainly tomorrow.
So yes, we’re in a far, far better place than we were when we started. But the continuous evolution is ongoing, and this is the most important thing for any agency to recognize, particularly a services organization. Recognizing that is why we continue to improve.
We’ve seen what happens when culture is treated as an afterthought. And I strongly believe that if you lose sight of people, that’s the end of the story. Culture is something that always needs to be tended to with care and attention. And we have a lot more work, and our best days ahead.