A Culture of Free Will, And How It Supports Strong Business Performance

Written by Samer Saab.

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It all started back on December 30 of 2012, during my yearly vacation time, when one of my managers called me frantically advising me that a couple of Explorance employees (referred to as Explorers) are not in the office that day, despite the fact that they had never really submitted a time-off request form. I was in dismay that someone would actually take it on them to police the vacation policies to such an extent. It did not sit well with me.

It struck me that our managers, at the time, were actually focusing a large chunk of their time on useless tasks to administer employee time-off policies and formalized performance management processes, among many other corporate policies they were responsible to enforce. And to top it off, it seemed to me a bit hypocritical that, as an organization that expects its contributors to be at work when and for as long as needed, we actually attach so many strings on the time they may need to balance their own personal lives.

How was I able to look into our employees’ eyes for all these years, ignoring the very basic law in life, and that is the one of Reciprocity? Bluntly stated: how could I have expected them to give us as much time, heart and soul as we needed in the name of business success, but not have expected them to give their loved ones and themselves as much time, heart and soul as they needed in the name of their own personal balance and success?

A corporate culture of free will blog

So I rounded up everyone very early in 2013, and shared with them the sole Policy we would live by from that moment on: at Explorance, we shall abide and enforce relentlessly a “Zero” Policy. And the concrete foundation of our powerful, yet at times controversial, culture of Free Will was poured.

We have since decided to treat our employees like the adults that they are, and empowered them with the advantage, accountability, and autonomy that comes with Free Will. We would remain the same bunch of misfits that we cherished so much. That bunch that came together aiming at greatness, with relentless commitment to continuous improvement every minute of every day.

The seven cornerstones to our culture of free will are:

  1. “Time off” — to be, or not to be?

    As the elimination of the Time off policy was the trigger of our Free Will culture at Explorance, I thought it is best to start off with this one.

    Our statement for time off is: “Take as much time as you need. Your manager or supervisor can neither say No, nor keep track of it.

    We are just entering our sixth (6th) straight year enforcing this “No-policy” and it is working like a charm. On one hand, it eliminated all administrative overhead associated with traditional time off policies, on the other hand it forced our managers and executives to up their leadership game in supporting and nurturing the notion of collective consciousness, and responsibility among their reporting contributors.

    I vividly remember that day, early on, when one of our managers came to me, cursing our new vacation policy (or lack off), reprimanding me for causing through it that all four (4) of his reporting Explorers chose to take time off simultaneously. To him, it was incontestable proof that our policy is a failed one. To me, and I made sure to state it clearly to him: it was his failure in leadership. And it was. Today, while the vacation policy has not changed, all of his department’s employees synchronize on their own their time off plans to ensure that no client is left behind, and that no unfair burden is borne by any other employee.

    Obviously, a No-policy can be abused as badly as any policy can. And so has this one. It turned out that the employees that actually took advantage of every ounce of time off that our previous “vacation policy” entitled them to take, are the same ones exaggerating the time off taken with the No-policy of today. I can honestly think of a handful, or less, of those. And there are those that do not know how to self-regulate, and hence end up not taking merely as much time-off as they truly should or would need.

    For the group of Free Will abusers, we strongly believe that culture and strong leadership will help bring equilibrium and protect the No-policy from becoming a Policy. And for the group of self-neglecting Explorers, which are also a handful, we continue to enforce a yearly shutdown where no one ought to work; and also continue to develop our leadership to recognize and encourage those that neglects to take the time off they would actually need in a timely manner.

  2. Layoffs — are we all in it together or not?

    This is another important foundation of a culture of high employee trust, engagement and performance. While companies continue to focus on employee loyalty, they seem to miss out on the fact that loyalty is a two way street. How can we expect an employee to resist the temptation of being where the grass seems greener, if we cannot to the least grant them the same commitment in return, through good and bad times?

    A corporate culture of free

    At Explorance, we have been boasting, and since inception, the fact that we’re all in this challenging and rewarding endeavor together.

    When many people come together with the goal of building and succeeding as one, great things happen. And as any bootstrapped company, we have been tested twice and, in both cases, Explorance and Explorers stood strong and supported each other to overcome. Interestingly, our business results during those two same financial years have outperformed and by far any other years prior or thereafter. This is the power of reciprocity in dealings. This is the power of one.

    Simply said, we have had a strict no-layoff policy since inception. And it works great. This also helps instill conscious leadership where the collective responsibility in balancing our growth ambitions with the reality of our business is key. One should not mistake No-layoff with No-firing. They are two different things, where the first reflects the fact that someone is being let go for no reason of their own, and the latter for cause. At Explorance, we hire carefully, we never layoff and never will, yet we do fire swiftly and justly.

  3. Performance appraisals … what?

    With a commitment to continuous improvement, and at heart, there is not much place for individual performance management at Explorance. We have stayed away from this since inception, in 2003. Our belief has always been that if we focused and supported each and every contributor to improve one thing every day, we would achieve much higher growth and stronger performance than the average business where the focus is purely on top line individual performance measurement and monitoring, with hand-me-down goals.

    At Explorance we believe that goals and objectives must be personalized and agile.

    Hence, leadership have traditionally set their goals and shared them widely, while supporting and encouraging other Explorers to actually do the same for theirs and what they aim to achieve.

    This works well in ensuring everyone is focused and engaged in reaching their own committed goals. It supports higher levels of achievement and further develop the sense of accountability and empowerment among Explorers.

    This concept does not however come without some serious challenges. How do we ensure that the overall organizational goals and strategy are well aligned throughout the organization? How do we ensure that we remain agile to keep up with fast changing market landscape?

    The essence of this philosophy is that by owning up to one’s own performance indicators, and improvement goals, we increase the engagement and commitment to personal success, and inherently collective success and business growth.

  4. Challenging our leaders to adapt

    One challenge that we faced early on as we instilled the culture of Free Will at Explorance was management aptitude to navigate the leadership challenges entailed. The challenge was even greater when we brought in great managers/executives from outside. As in most cases, management and leadership have been nurtured and evolved in environments where the sense and use of authority is strong. At Explorance, we have stripped authority away from everyone, enticing leadership and Explorers to nurture and develop their competencies of influence and inspiration.

    The art of influence, because it is not a science, is not an easy leadership trait to understand, develop and apply. The good news is that while it did take time, we have found out that most of the managers and executives are more comfortable navigating the necessary style to lead effectively within a 9 to 12 months timeframe. It is really a question of unlearning a deeply routed business way of leading, and re-learning a more organic and natural way to lead.

    Corporate culture of free will

    Highly successful Explorer leaders:

    • are bootstrapped at heart
    • are great influencers
    • do as they say
    • are agile, and are always one step ahead of change
    • display empathy and patience
    • are strong in culture, strong in strategy, and strong in performance
  5. Family

    I catch myself often referring to the fact that our families like Explorance more, than us Explorers do. That was a bet we made early on recognizing that we are only as strong at work, as we are good at home. It is only when we feel supported to be our best, every day, with patience and understanding, that we can achieve true greatness.

    Our culture has been built on this foundation. Every activity, every No Policy, every award, and every decision we make takes into consideration work-life equilibrium. We also acknowledge and take part of every Explorer’s family milestone, from the happy ones such as a new home, an engagement, a marriage, a birth, to the unfortunate ones such as separations and losses.

    We must acknowledge that we spend more than a third of our active lives at work, and if we balance it right, if we feel that work can be a natural extension of our personal life, with all its imperfections, we would have lived a full life, and not two-thirds of one.

  6. Giving

    When I founded Explorance, as a bootstrapped company, it was obvious that we needed financial support and support from organizations that are committed to entrepreneurial success.

    A handful came through, and warranted us the oxygen we needed early on, to get to see another day. They were foundational and instrumental to our continuity and success.

    One experience that I refer to often is when the Fondation Montreal Inc. actually gave us a $10,000 grant back in 2004. This was enough for us to extend our lifeline by 45 days, when we most needed it. Yet what struck me more was the level of happiness and pride expressed by their wonderful team.

    I understood that we get a higher sense of purpose from giving, than we do by receiving.

    So not only did they give us well needed funds and encouragement; they actually taught us how to be happier and more fulfilled as we continue to develop our successful business. They taught us how to give, and stay balanced in a world where business leaders and organizations achieve levels of wealth that may be out of reach to many.

    There were times when I was disillusioned with business, and it was the giving part that kept me going. And the sole thought of elevated levels of giving, and a bigger footprint of good, pushes me further and forward, faster.

    And then it became only natural to share the joy of giving with all Explorers, so we found ourselves encouraging all Explorers to take part of, and even lead, causes they strongly believe in. Whatever they are. Wherever they are. We will support them by matching any contribution they put in, and more.

  7. Celebrate everything

    This one is easy, yet its timeliness is essential. We try our best to celebrate everything and everyone, right there and then, when we should. Every successful implementation of our solutions, every new client win, every successful software release, as well as every first experience or achievement.

    It is easy to turn the page on a celebration worthy moment, because we are wired to shift gear and look for the next challenge, release, client, or personal achievement. How many of us actually take the time to step back, reflect and savor an achievement before looking forward? At Explorance, we make every effort possible to acknowledge successes as they occur. It is the continuous flow of small successes that build up business success.

The cornerstones above are a few of what makes our place as unique, challenging and rewarding place. They seem simple and natural, because they deeply resembles our essence and who we are. Not sure how business culture has managed to stray so far and away, while succeeding to build an alternative world that forces us to live by two sets of values, and to lead a schizophrenic existence.

Over the years, many have questioned the very essence of our culture of Free Will, our policy of none, and our approach to fueling strong business performance by focusing on individual improvement. It is believed that as we grow, the pressures of normality will force us into a more traditional approach to policies, politics and business ways. I reckon to disagree, but time and only time will tell. Since 2013, we have tripled our workforce, and while our culture has been very strongly challenged, it continues to thrive and stand strong.

Organic culture is like a soup that enhances its flavors as more ingredients are added on. One thing for sure, it will always resemble us. And it shall continue to be the secret recipe for our success.

And success is personal!

My deep wish, in sharing the very essence of how we do things here at Explorance, is to inspire, and contribute as yet one more agent of change, and help make businesses worldwide better places to work with, and for. At the foundation of this belief is the sense of reciprocity. Treat others like we want to be treated. This will indeed make for a much better world.

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