Accion Labs demystifies its culture with transparency

 

Kinesh Doshi, founder and CEO of Accion Labs, often gets asked: What is the five-year vision of your company?

The problem, he says, is that no one can see out five years in the technology industry. In fact, if someone says he or she has a five-year roadmap, they are probably lying.

Doshi originally learned this lesson from GE’s Jack Welch, but he’s taken it to heart with his global technology firm that has become one of the fastest growing companies in Western Pennsylvania.

Accion Labs, which has 12 offices and more than 1,000 employees, focuses on providing specialists to technology firms and IT organizations on the latest emerging technologies. It helps produce the latest apps, e-commerce websites and internal software by using big data, cloud, open-source, Web 2.0, software as a service and more, even though its name may not be on the finished product.

But being on the cutting edge means you cannot be too rigid.

“Companies grow — individually grow — by being flexible, and looking out and grabbing the opportunities that they are building toward, not by having a very firm roadmap,” Doshi says.

If you try to plan too much, he believes you’ll end up disappointing yourself and others like your direct investors.

A defined niche

With backgrounds in the IT industry, the founders and leaders of Accion Labs understand how software is built.

When they founded the company in 2011, along with the good luck of being in the right time and place in an industry of demand with people who can deliver, Doshi says they discovered a gap in the marketplace.

Companies often try to build software in a traditional manner, even though new technologies have changed that model. You cannot do five-year projects anymore — writing the requirements for a year and then developing the software for four years.

pit_cs_KineshDoshi2_0916Also, while the industry has relatively low barriers for entry, which means competition, there’s also a lot of growth. There is opportunity for everyone as long as you define your niche, Doshi says.

By working on emerging technologies, Accion Labs doesn’t see the need to compete with other technology companies. Instead, it may collaborate with them to provide value for customers.

A niche of emerging technologies does present some problems for hiring, though. You have to not only find specific skillsets, but also find people who fit into your work culture.

CTO Ashutosh “Ash” Bijoor says that Accion Labs has grown quickly, but in a service-based business, the ability to maintain quality is critical. He believes it comes down to maintaining the right work culture.

“Each person can potentially cost the entire company in execution, and so for us, the biggest challenge is maintaining quality of the deliverables,” he says.

Accion Labs isn’t a manufacturing company with a single facility, Doshi says. It not only has offices in Pittsburgh; Atlanta; and Santa Clara, California; the United Kingdom; Singapore; Malaysia; Australia; Switzerland; and throughout India, but a lot of its employees work at client sites.

The workforce, which is much younger than average, hasn’t spent much time with Accion Labs, like in a mature company, he says.

“It is very hard for us to impart our culture to them, or make sure that they appreciate it,” Doshi says.

Finding potential

Maintaining your work culture during growth starts with making the right hires.

Bijoor says the first filter of potential job candidates is based on technical skills, which can be done through objective, autonomous tests.

“One of the challenges is that the skillsets are not commonplace. So, it’s not easy for us to bring a number of candidates for any particular job description, to begin with,” he says.

Then, it’s a matter of discovering if someone will fit into Accion Lab’s culture, which Bijoor says is difficult to quantify.pit_cs_KineshDoshi7_0916

To deal with this, Accion Labs created a subset of people who have worked with the company long enough to understand and present the firm’s culture. These thought leaders do the interviews and determine if someone will be a fit, he says.

It’s not a matter of finding a direct cultural match as much as looking for the potential for a culture match, or the potential of a mismatch, Doshi says.

“We realize that certain people come from different backgrounds, and there are different ways of doing things,” he says. “What we’re looking for are people who can be trained into our culture.”

You want to be upfront about what it’s like to work at your company. Explain how you do things by laying out scenarios and seeing how they respond.

“We lay out our culture in a very unambiguous way and typical manner, and then we see what their reaction is to that,” Doshi says.

At Accion Labs, it’s a culture of execution, high responsiveness and transparency, so the employees need to be able to take that in stride and not get flustered. The firm doesn’t value meetings and Power Points; it values action.

If you want an environment where it’s OK to respond to an email after three days or you won’t get a call in the middle of the night from a client, Doshi says their firm isn’t a good fit.

“If even one person has a gut feeling that there are signs of a potential mismatch, that’s not the person we want to be hiring,” he says.

But, again, a critical piece is identifying a core group of people who are the thought leaders that represent the culture. Then, Doshi says, you can invest time and energy in making sure they are on the same page as the top executives.

Some of these thought leaders may do better than others at imparting the culture to the rest of the employees, but he says the key is to keep trying.

Accion Labs also makes sure that it declares ownership of a new hire by having thought leaders act as a mentor in order to provide feedback.

Encourage questioning

The same transparency that the Accion Labs shows in the hiring process permeates the organization, including its communication methods.

Doshi says their culture is well documented in the handbook, and they continue to do training on it with employee groups.

It’s important to have discussions and brainstorm about different scenarios that may come up. Don’t just talk about ideas; explain what you mean by them.

“You can talk about responsiveness, but if you get an email from an employee and a customer, the question becomes which one do we respond to first?” Doshi says.

“It’s not just, ‘Oh, OK, we have to be responsive.’ We build different scenarios, do the analysis and then document it,” he says. “In this scenario, this is our approach, this is our response.”

Doshi says you need to give continual feedback to help people understand.

At least once a month, Accion Labs holds global town halls with some of the employees.

After some high-level background on the company’s growth and challenges, he says the town hall is opened up for questions.

“What we have found is when you just open it up for a Q&A, no one asks any questions. People are just afraid of asking questions, particularly in a setting where everyone is watching,” Doshi says.

So, one of the company’s leaders takes on the role of interviewer, asking the tough questions that everyone is thinking, but doesn’t want to say.

“We will start with something really core to their mind,” he says. “We don’t try to hide questions. Any question is acceptable. That’s really important, because we don’t want to control what’s being asked.”

For example, Accion Labs had lost one customer, which put 27 people on the bench. The leading question was: What happens to those 27 people?

pit_cs_KineshDoshi5_0916“If you think about it, that’s exactly the question they are asking each other around the water cooler and the copy machines,” Doshi says.

Once someone from the leadership team starts, others will speak up.

“I’m a strong believer that if you put it on the table, I have an influence on the direction that the employees are thinking,” Doshi says. “If you don’t, you just don’t know.”

Along with this approach, comes the need to accept your mistakes. If an acquisition, for example, didn’t go well, then don’t try to hide it.

“We think if we accept our mistakes, we will look bad. We will look inept in execution and like bad leaders. And that’s not true,” Doshi says.

It’s not just a matter of communicating problems, but providing direction to the communication through organized systems. You can make it clear what you’re expecting from your employees.

“This also gives (employees) the feeling that leadership is honest, direct and they are not trying to hide information,” he says.

“Because today, the way the world operates with the internet and all that, there’s no way you can hide anything.”

 

Takeaways:

  • Identify thought leaders to spread the cultural message.
  • Open the lines of communication with authenticity.
  • Transparency helps turn concepts into executable ideas.

 

The Doshi File:

Name: Kinesh Doshi
Title: Founder and CEO
Company: Accion Labs

Born: Delhi, India
Education: Bachelor’s in electrical engineering, from Delhi College of Engineering; Master’s in electronics from Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi; MBA in finance/marketing from Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management

pit_cs_KineshDoshi6_0916What was your first job and what did you learn from it? My first job was with a leading IT firm in India as a software programmer. Besides programming and software development best practices, I learned:

  • What matters is not how many hours you put in a problem but how fast and effectively you solve it. This means outcome is more important than the effort.
  • Attitude, work ethics and being a team player is very important to accomplish extraordinarily large projects.
  • Constant learning is key to professional success.

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received? My first boss told me “it does not matter how many hours you put in, what matters is what you produce.” In essence, efficiency matters. He encouraged me to always focus on outcome, action and results. Besides professional success, I feel that this focus on outcome has allowed me to balance work and life and helped me achieve more in my personal life.

Is there one piece of technology you could never go without? I have to admit I spend a lot of time on my emails and my phone. Of all the apps on my phone, I can’t go without my calendar since I track both my business and personal commitments on it.

What do you like to do when you’re not working? I listen to music, run on the trail and read about technology and philosophy. I also like cooking with my family.

What person do you most admire and why? Mahatma Gandhi. In his book “My Experiments with Truth,” he talks about how it is important to be an authentic leader, speak your mind, not carry ego and consider and accept other’s viewpoints.

This philosophy is all the more relevant to business leaders in today’s dynamic environment where one has to balance multiple stakeholders such as investors, employees, partners and clients, and react to new information on a daily — and sometimes on an hourly — basis.