Lessons to be learned in leading a successful values-based operation

Ian_cavanagh_-_blog

Dave Veale’s interview with Ian Cavanagh, CEO, Ambir, as part of the Leadership Unleashed series of interviews with leaders.

Roy Disney (Walt’s nephew and a film writer) once said that ‘It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.’

Ian Cavanagh, CEO of Ambir, says it is ‘hugely difficult’ to grow a business that is aligned with your values and those values are tested in difficult times.

Being a ‘value-based’ organization sounds nice, but is it really possible to focus on values and be successful? I had this in mind when I met with Ian Cavanagh, the CEO of Ambir. On its website Ambir is described as an ‘independent, Atlantic Canadian, values-based IT consulting and application development outsourcing services company’ with offices in Saint John, Fredericton and Halifax.

Ian clearly values teamwork and is quick to point out that Ambir’s success is due to the people in his organization. I would venture to guess that it also takes a strong leader, as Ambir has a very impressive track record with Ian at the helm. They have been recognized as “The Best Place to Work in Atlantic Canada” by Progress Magazine and ranked nationally as one of Canada’s ‘Top 25 Up and Comers’ in a recent Branham Group survey of ICT Companies.

Our discussion focused on the opportunities and challenges associated with Ambir’s unique, value-based leadership commitment.

Dave: How hard is it to grow a business in alignment with your values?

Ian: Hugely difficult.

Dave: Tell me about that – what are the most difficult parts of that, Ian?

Ian: Your values get challenged in difficult times. Anyone can talk about a values-based culture when times are good, but your values are tested when things get more difficult.

Dave: What is an example of a ‘test’ you face as a values-based organization?

Ian: Our values at Ambir are on our website – integrity, respect, honesty, teamwork, and diversity. You have a moment of truth where there is client opportunity “A” and client opportunity “B.” Client A says, “I am going to pay you double your normal rate,” (which never happens by the way), but the client is an SOB.

Opportunity B is a client that is in New York and they are saying that if you work for half your normal rate, and prove to me that you can be successful, maybe that can lead to follow-up business. We like the client and we feel the values are aligned.

So there are two different scenarios and we are looking at using the same resources, so what do we do? Well, opportunity A is all about money and opportunity B is about the test of your values. Those are the situations that confront you.

Dave: How do you accomplish being both profitable and a values-based organization?

Ian: You do it daily through your actions, your words, and your behaviour. You also demonstrate it through the financial results in the business. The challenge is that there’s been a shift towards financially engineered businesses led or managed by accounting professionals or legal professionals. I don’t have a knock against either one, but naturally, if you are an accountant you are going to run an organization on the basis of a balanced score card that tends to be infinitely measurable.
What we are talking about here is a leap of faith with an underlying belief that you will see a corresponding result. We have low attrition rates. We think happy, contented people naturally make greater contributions to their families, the community, their clients, their co-workers. It’s the happiness quotient – we didn’t invent it but its real and it starts with a belief in a leadership capacity.

Dave: Ambir has received recognition for being “the best place to work in Atlantic Canada” – how did it feel to win this award?

Ian: I was really shy about that when it first happened. Frankly, it was almost embarrassing. It was great and I was proud, but we are just not boastful types. We are grossly imperfect as a company and we do not have it all figured out.

I came to the realization that the reason we were fortunate enough to be the number-one best place to work is because our team ultimately decided it through a confidential survey. From that point forward I decided that I will not apologize anymore and I am going to be proud of this recognition.

We didn’t participate in the survey for several years and then last year we participated again.

Dave: As more of a gut check?

Ian: Yeah, where are we now? We did the survey again and we end up winning the thing. Again, it is the team that is making the determination.

Dave: It sounds to me like your leadership team made a conscious decision to take the “road less travelled,” do you agree?

Ian: The hard route is to do the unconventional and, truthfully, I think it is much harder to grow a business and manage a business this way. One of my colleagues says the way we’ve created our business is “part business and part social experiment.” Will this work as we scale? I don’t know.

Dave: What are the plans for Ambir’s future?

Ian: It’s a good question, because the conventional question is usually, “how many people do you want to be a year from now?” My answer is that we are not measuring ourselves by saying we are going to double our numbers in the next year. We are growing organically while trying to preserve this thing to the best of our abilities.

If we can continue to evolve as an organization, help people in their own life journey and have them benefit outside of work because they work with an organization like this – and still be successful by a financial measure – that’s a pretty good day.

Dave: So what is your philosophy on business growth?

Ian: What if people are growing? And what is the measure of people growing versus head-count growing? It is almost the expectation that you must grow. Show me any company in the world who has consistently grown since their inception – it doesn’t happen.

So I would rather focus on another key measure – impact. Can we make an impact with the people that we work with, an impact in our communities and impact with our clients?

Dave: Can you finish the sentence. “A leader’s job is to …”

Ian: Inspire and care.

Dave Veale is a business and leadership coach and founder of Vision Coaching Inc. in Saint John. He can be reached by email at Dave@VisionCoachingInc.com. His column appears every other Thursday. To read past columns go to www.LeadershipUnleashed.ca

Photo:Peter Walsh/Teleg raph-Journal Archive
Published February 10, 2011 in the Telegraph Journal