Maintaining a startup culture of innovation, transparency

Software company focuses on entrepreneurial qualities in recruitment, recognition
By Kathy Enros
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/30/2018

Culture in the workplace isn’t something you can touch or feel. It isn’t ping-pong tables, beer on tap or colourful meeting pods. Instead, it’s an intrinsic ecosystem, the backbone that binds a workplace together, and the deciding factor for the types of people who will make up the organization.

It’s the lifeblood of every company, and undermining its value is one of the most detrimental mistakes a senior executive can make.

 While Vancouver-based ACL, a provider of risk management, compliance and audit software, is 30 years old and employs 310 people globally, it’s a company famous for its “startup culture” — a term that’s defined by a company’s value for creative thinking, open communication and flat hierarchy.

You don’t need to be a startup to have this kind of culture. In order to succeed, a company needs to be entrepreneurial so it’s not left behind in the market. If it’s not innovating, it’s not succeeding.

 When Laurie Schultz took over as CEO of ACL in 2011, she inherited a founder-led organization with more than 23 years of history and a pre-established culture.

The very first goal she set out to achieve was fostering a work environment free of barriers to creative thought, an open place for ideas to be shared without criticism, where disrupting the norm was encouraged and not stigmatized.

Now, seven years later, ACL’s culture is the root cause of many of the company’s successes, most of which could not have been accomplished without a commitment to disruptive innovation, authenticity and transparency.

Recruiting based on entrepreneurial spirit

In interviewing new candidates, it’s always a good idea to ask them about the times they’ve gone outside of their job descriptions.

This is a great indicator of whether people possess entrepreneurial qualities — if they’re able to step back from the day-to-day and assess the bigger picture.

It’s also wise to look for past examples of when they were self-starters: “Did you start your own company in high school? Did you hike the Andes? Did you teach yourself how to juggle, just because?”

It’s a person’s unbridled energy and inability to sit still that fuels great ideas. And it’s about a values match — are they seeking an organization that is transparent, authentic, welcomes creativity and encourages idea sharing?

 ACL regularly holds “hack days,” and everyone in the company is invited to participate.

This involves someone pitching an idea (work-related or not), getting a team together, and then providing the tools and resources to make it happen.

This could be something like adding plug-ins to existing products or building a zombie video game from scratch.

It’s a way for people to step outside their role and stretch their brain muscles by working on something new that challenges and excites them.  

Retaining change agents

Change agents are people who improve a company by going above and beyond their job description to achieve transformative change in a way that inspires others to do more.

It’s important to reward and nurture change agents not only to retain talent, but to encourage similar behaviour among others.

 ACL has a change agents program designed to provide star employees with the support and resources of the senior team so they can bring to life their great ideas.

This includes one-on-one time with the CEO as well as mentorships from senior staff members.

In addition, a peer-to-peer recognition program is an effective way to reward day-to-day achievements and encourage similar behaviour throughout the company.

In the common area, there’s a “kudos wall” where all employees can call out team members for their great ideas and contributions for going above and beyond their scope.  

 Finally, taking an active interest in the career goals and advancement of a team plays a crucial role in maintaining employee engagement. When star team members feel their career goals are communicated and valued at a senior level, they feel a greater alignment between their personal goals and the company’s business objectives and targets.

Employees are also less likely to seek outside employment if they feel there is the opportunity for growth internally, and more often report greater job satisfaction and happiness in their work environment.

Encouraging transparency

As a company that helps to eliminate fraud and corruption, ACL places great importance on transparency — though this should be a central piece to every organization.

ACL has a central motto: “Put the moose on the table.” This is a huge part of its culture, and moose will pop up throughout its office decor to reinforce the message.

While everyone knows that an elephant in the room means an awkward topic people avoid, the moose promotes extreme transparency. Asking employees to put the moose on the table is encouraging them to discuss whatever is on their mind, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable it might be.

Oftentimes, people’s fear of their views being rejected keeps them from voicing their opinions — this is especially common among junior-level employees.

ACL has attempted to combat this by removing that barrier altogether. True transparency goes beyond open-floor plans and glass meeting rooms — it’s showing that every person’s opinion matters equally, and everyone has a seat at the table.

Kathy Enros is vice-president of talent at ACL in Vancouver. For more information, visit

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