Virtual Admiration – Abraham&Harrison (A model for global workforce)
This week at Corpus Operis in Casekow, Germany, I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Harrison, the CEO of Abraham&Harrison (“A&H”). A&H is a global social media marketing and public relations company [see the framed video below for a pleasurable description of what they do]. The company has a workforce of approximately 35 people operating in 5 continents, 12 countries, in 11 languages, and on 1 Internet. The A&H workforce are predominantly independent contractors, completely virtual, and global. This emerging workforce model is not uncommon, many aspire to build a business like this, but it is unusual to find someone actually doing it. So, let’s hold Abraham&Harrison up to the sun and see what we can learn.
Mark runs the business from his endless summer lairs in Mauritius, an island off the coast of India, and Berlin, Germany. He runs the company with one of his best friends, Chris Abraham who operates from Washington, DC. The business is three years old and has an international client list full of names that you would recognize.
Since the beginning Mark and Chris have consciously shaped a company culture to sustain the business lifestyle that they want. Mark was taking a well-earned sabbatical in Tanzania. Chris had started a PR company and it had grown past the overwhelm level. He asked Mark if would help him run the business. Mark’s response, “Yes, IF you agree that I am free to live wherever I want. My freedom is what I value most. I’ll do it if we agree to run the company as a virtual company.” And so, the first seed of the A&H workforce culture was planted. Mark and Chris have worked hard, with their team, to establish and embody a culture that delivers results for clients while maintaining the lifestyle that the workforce WANTS. Here are some highlights to the A&H workforce approach:
All Accept that Freedom = Responsibility. With a virtual, contracted workforce, there is inherent freedom. There is no boss watching you. No one can see if you have showered, or if you do your laundry at 2:30 in the afternoon. The “virtual risk” is that workers will not work and that it will take a long time to figure that out. The virtual model requires workers who are self-motivated and who accept responsibility for getting the work done. The virtual risk is mitigated by the inherent pressure of being an independent contractor. Since there is no guarantee of a next project, contractors tend to work very hard. Actually at A&H, contractors tend to work too hard. This is a big concern of Mark’s and he regularly protects his contractors from themselves. There is no notion of a 9 to 5 work day but everyone is grounded in the responsibility for selling and delivering work.
Recruitment via Nepotism. Effective recruiting is particularly essential with a virtual, global workforce. Mark proudly relies on nepotism as a primary recruiting tool, “In our environment, our workers feel great responsibility for the people that they introduce into a project. It reflects on them and that produces a very results-oriented energy.” Leadership by Capacity (not by role). Mark and Chris have deliberately created a culture that emphasizes people’s strengths. Team members are encouraged to take projects and tasks that fit their strengths. At times this means that Mark and Chris step aside and let others lead tasks that typical executives would insist on doing. Since they leverage all cloud-managed business applications, the tasks of the business are available for everyone to see. There is total transparency to the work at hand.
Currency Awareness. The A&H corporate lexicon includes the word “currency” which has a different meaning than monetary value. Currency refers to each person’s set of prioritized value drivers that they want from their work at A&H. For example, someone’s currency might look like:
Team Member 1 = freedom, money, the opportunity to play and create
Team Member 2 = predictable pay, time with kids, no emergencies
Team Member 3 = power, respect, responsibility, trust
Mark and Chris make a point of knowing what is most important to their staff and they talk about it openly. It is a bit like how people throw around the Myers-Briggs identities [INTJ, ENTJ, etc…] to describe themselves. Currency awareness pervades decision making at A&H: how they assign projects, how they schedule meetings, how they communicate with each other, etc… The currency concept provides them with a roadmap to create a sustainable workforce.
Total Communication. We rarely get to see our digital co-workers. They live in our phones and in our computers. And aside from an occasional astronaut quality visage through Skype, we don’t have the opportunity to read body language. And global co-workers work when we are sleeping, or when we are bringing the kids to school. How do you keep everyone on the same page? A&H approach this by putting everything in the digital cloud. All calendars, documents, spreadsheets, project plans, go into the A&H cloud. Everyone can see what everyone is doing, and has done. And, they cultivate a cc / bcc / reply-all culture so there is a forensic record of everything. To make this system work, Mark and Chris make sure that they are very accessible to their teams. The most impressive thing is that they actually have an articulated communication protocol. This approach also presumes that people know how to leverage email-rule functionality so that inboxes don’t become overwhelm boxes.
“No-Emergencies” Culture. If a leader or client has a work style that seems to produce a steady stream of last minute emergency meetings, then it spreads out of control. If it gets enabled consistently, then it becomes a feature of the entire culture. And make no mistake, it erodes the quality. Mark and Chris work hard to mitigate this by embodying and enforcing a no-emergencies culture. At A&H everyone buys into an agreement that meetings are only booked with at least 1-day advanced notice and meetings should never be more than 1 hour. This policy takes discipline and it does require Mark and Chris to push back on clients on a regular basis. Emergencies do come up, but at A&H they almost always real versus personality-driven emergencies.
As you can tell, I am a big fan of A&H and their leadership team. They are living the virtual, global company dream in a real way. The conscious, overt crafting of a culture that provides a holistic lifestyle for its workers is an inspiration. Can large organizations learn from the A&H example? What happens when you design the company to produce engagement?