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Guest Author: Bianca Bartz

Habanero Consulting Group is well known in Vancouver for its strong company culture and commitment to core values. The company was co-founded in 1996 by Steven Fitzgerald, whom we recently interviewed to dive deeper into the origin of Habanero’s culture, and how it has evolved since its launch. 

Note from Greg Scott, Founder of CulturePeers: This interview took place in 2016. I consider Steven Fitgerald to be amongst one of my most trusted advisors. He is always willing to listen to ideas and share his insights, as is reflected in this interview and in his company culture.

Like much of the startup lore we’ve come to admire, Habareno Consulting Group began with two people in a basement and an idea. Today, almost 21 years later, the company has expanded across Canada to Calgary and Toronto, and has worked hard to preserve its commitment to culture across time and geography—a feat that hasn’t been without its challenges.

Expanding a Culture Across the Rockies

“We opened an office in Calgary 10 years ago, and it was easily the hardest thing we’ve done as a company,” Steven told us. “We hadn’t realized what a single-site culture we were.

“Expanding across the Rockies was way harder than we anticipated. Expanding to Toronto after that was easier. There was a feeling when we launched Calgary that there was a main head office in Vancouver, and then an outport. When we opened Toronto, that friction lessened.”

Steven emphasized the strength of their collaborative culture, which was one of the most difficult elements to navigate. “It was very hard on our culture.”

“We wrestled with a bunch of things—for one, the business culture and customers are different in Calgary. We also had people with horrendous commutes into the city, so they wanted to work from home, which we wanted to support, but how do you balance that to make sure they still contribute to the culture? We learned all sorts of things from the Calgary expansion.”

The journey to develop a consistent culture has lasted over 10 years now, and been a lot of work, but also brought a lot of valuable lessons.  

“One of the lessons we learned when we got to Toronto was that we weren’t going to dabble our way into the market. When we first opened in Calgary, it started with someone staying at a hotel for a while before we opened an office—we did it all very slowly. But with Toronto, we said, “We’re going to Toronto. Who wants to go?” 19 people expressed interest. One of the partners, Ben Skelton, went with two others from Vancouver to launch the office. We’ve since moved more people to Toronto from Vancouver and Calgary.”

Taking a Page from Holocracy

One of the things Steven was clear about early on was that he didn’t want to have regional leadership.

“We’re one company that happens to be split across multiple cities,” he explained. “We’re a project-based consulting company, so we rarely do work where the whole team is in one office.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for self-forming teams, which is something we’re working on adapting from Holacracy. We want to promote mixing—of tenure, role, gender, geography—so we resource our projects that way.”

Most of that is done virtually, an area of business Habanero focuses on in their own services, including enterprise social networks and collaboration technology.

“For the size of our company, we have invested so much into HD conferencing that it makes me a little nauseous,” Steven said with a smile. “But those things are super important. But so is meeting in person once in awhile.”

“As much as we’re a technology culture, we believe that nothing is more important than face to face.”

At their annual conference last year, Habanero invited everyone on the team plus their partners. They made sure to think through all of the moments and important touch points, and even arranged experiences to make sure both employees and spouses were taken care of.

“We want to maximize the experience so we can work together, play together, and have free time together and apart. I think those things are super critical to a culture.”

A Cultural Evolution Through Purpose & Values

As is natural for many companies, Habanero’s culture first stemmed from the founders’ own values and beliefs, but over time with the addition of new people (and office locations), a natural evolution took place.

“We use to talk about our purpose in a certain way,” Steven shared. “It had a bit of resonance but we knew it could be stronger. We talked to customers, did more interviews with our team, and visited a series of companies we admired such as Zappos. The process really helped us get to the heart of the matter and be clear about our purpose.”

While doing some rebranding work, the team started to look at how they were phrasing their purpose, and eventually came up with a simple, more resonant way to explain it:

We are passionate about helping people and organizations thrive.

Their values have gone through a similar evolution. While they started as one-word values, they’re now multiword: Passion for Purpose, Always Tell the Truth, Everyone Has to Win, In It for the Long Term, and Do Great Work.  

As Steven described, discovering your values and purpose is an archeological process, not a design process.

Preserving Morale Under Pressure
“Performance has an enormous impact on our culture,” Steven explained, now serious. “We’re going through a really big transformation. I feel like we squeezed an elephant through the eyes of a needle last year—that’s the stuff that builds out your culture, but also creates a lot of stress and anxiety.”

“Higher order ideas occupy people’s minds more when they feel secure, and the opposite is true as well. Our performance is an expression of how well we’re bringing our purpose to life.”

That’s big and important stuff, and not the most intuitive to navigate. We were curious about the tools and processes they used to increase people’s sense of security. A lot of it, Steve said, comes down to transparency, empowering people, having clarity on a plan, and collaborative problem-solving.

“We’re 15 years into being an open books accounting company,” he explained. “Once a month we sit down with the whole company—occasionally clients come in, folks from our bank have sat in, people we’re interviewing have come in—and we talk about all the numbers that matter to us, from culture and employee engagement to workplace health, to how we’re delivering to customers, to financials, to marketing, sales, and operations.

“One of the antidotes and drivers of feeling rattled or insecure is just being as transparent as possible. But doing that without a lot of education can be really dangerous.”

Making Hard Decisions as a Team

“One of the things you can do is be open, but also arm people with the tools to understand what they’re seeing. Smart people want to know they’re on a smart team and that you have a really strong plan.”

It’s one of the things Habanero strives to do well. Earlier last year, pressure from the transformation and market instability forced Habanero to cut back on costs. They did everything they could to take expenses out of the business and gets things healthier. Unfortunately, they couldn’t avoid a round of layoffs, which made for a tough emotional time as they are such a close-knit group

“We even asked people to take leave without pay, which is something we hadn’t done before,” Steven explained of their plan to minimize layoffs. “We said, ‘You’ve got a couple months to do it, but we need you to take a week off without pay. It could over a few days, or a week at a time.’”

The whole experience was difficult, but it was full of touching moments as well. “Some people even volunteered to take an additional week off for those who couldn’t afford to,” Steven said, clearly moved by the gesture. “People really felt like they were contributing.”

“It was everything from survivor guilt, to being able to contribute in a situation that felt out of your control. In a weird way, it felt constructive for people, and there was an almost positive element to the process.”

The Importance of Treating People Like Adults

“You can boil a lot of this down to working really hard to respect the business, but at the same time, treating people like adults. Tell them everything you need to tell them, give them the right tools and authority to use them, exposure them to all the good and bad, and get them involved in the process.”

Prior to Habanero, Steven worked in a more corporate setting where the idea of leadership was much more paternalistic.

“I felt like my job was to protect others and hide the bad stuff,” he disclosed. “It took me a bunch of years to realize how unconstructive that was, and that it’s actually disrespectful to the super smart people I work with. Why would I need to shelter them when they are just as capable of understanding things as I am?

The Importance of Language on Culture

Many experts on culture agree that language is critical, and that it extends from the conscious to unconscious. That’s why Steven and his team have worked hard to fine tune the language they use at Habanero.  

“The odd person might refer to people as staff, or use the term human resources, and that’s the kind of language that you just get laughed at for using here,” he explained. “I think language is super important in any organization.”

Their team uses Culture Amp to run their regular internal surveys. They all gather together to review the results and discuss them as a company. Again, language is key here.

“We talk about some really honest and difficult feedback in the comments,” Steven explained. “Our leadership group makes time beforehand to talk about the language we’ll use. We do want our responses to be authentic and real-time, but it’s also important to run it through and be thoughtful in your approach. One of the things we want to watch for is language that comes across as defensive of the feedback in the survey.

Handling Negative Feedback as a Founder

As a company founder, culture can often feel very personal. After all, a company’s culture and values typically stem from your own. As we dove deeper with Steven, questions started to arise about how he keeps an open mind when it comes to tough feedback, without taking things to heart.

“It certainly helps to have the emotional sensitivity to things beaten out of you over the years,” he said candidly. “I personally think it’s super constructive to force yourself to be super vulnerable.

“If something really hurt my feelings, why wouldn’t I express that? I’ve found that if you share that in the right way, it’s a route into having a constructive conversation. And the more I’m able to do that, the less my feelings are hurt.

“I try to stay open and say, ‘Hey, I’d love to talk about that because it felt like you were saying that about me, and not just our culture. It feels really personal, and I’m struggling to process that.’”

The Power of Vulnerability in Leadership

Contrary to more old school thinking, Steven shared that he actually feels more powerful and effective as a leader when he’s open and shares that certain topics make him feel more fragile. To date, his honesty and humility have served him well.

“I’ve never encountered a situation like that where someone didn’t have a genuine care for how things affected me emotionally as well,” Steven shared. “I’m not using that to manipulate people—I’m trying to expose where I’m at, to expose my own mindfulness about how I show up, and trying to treat people like adults. Yes, that can feel shitty, but you respected me by sharing something personal and honest, so I’ll respect you in the same way because I know you can handle it too.”

Increasing Mindfulness at Work

The mindfulness movement sweeping some of the most progressive companies out there today has made its way into the Habanero office as well. This isn’t something pushed on the team, but something stemming organically from Steven’s own practices.

“I’ve been working on a mindfulness practice that includes daily meditation, which is a terrible trendy thing, but it’s super helpful for me,” Steven shared. “I’ve uncovered a lot of sticky topics for me that are kind of hot buttons. It’s kind of changed my life in this subtle way—things that used to put me in an emotionally difficult situation are way different now. It’s cool.”