Scaling culture: How we built the best place to work in Africa

Scaling companies anywhere is tough. Growing from 100 – 1000 employees in 2 years is extremely tough. But driving that kind of workplace growth across Africa is something that has never been done before. At the Great Place to Work Awards, we ranked number one (#1!) across the board: Best Company to Work For in Africa, Most Fun and Friendly Workplace, and Best Workplace for Generation – Millennials.

We sat down with Taiwo Judah-Ajayi, the Senior Director of People at Andela, to learn about what makes it work, the biggest challenges she faced, and lessons learned.

What is it about Andela’s culture that makes it so great to work here?

“Our culture is fueled by our mission and EPIC values. Virtually everyone we interview for a role at Andela says they chose us because of our mission and how it resonates with them,” says Taiwo Judah-Ajayi. Taiwo has been on the People team since 2015 and has seen the number of Andelans grow from around 100 to over 1000 people. “Our mission, coupled with our EPIC values, is our North Star of sorts” she continues.

Andela’s mission is to advance human potential by powering today’s teams and investing in tomorrow’s leaders. It is a mission statement borne out of the belief that brilliance is evenly distributed, but opportunity isn’t. The famed EPIC values represent an acronym: Excellence, Passion, Integrity, and Collaboration. When asked about the thinking behind Andela’s culture, Taiwo said “we’re creating an alternate reality where things work in Africa. That’s why you’ll often hear the ‘TIA’ mantra. It no longer means “This is Africa” – it means, “This is Andela.” Every day we’re rewriting the narrative about what Africa is known for and capable of, and our people are passionate about that.

“The culture has evolved over time and will continue to evolve. It is a reflection of where we are as an organization. In the early days, it was about getting people sold on literally doing the impossible; now, in a period of rapid scaling, excellence means something different. What excellence meant to us in 2014 is not what it is today. Initially, it was about proving that an accelerated Tech learning program can work in Africa. Today it is more about delivery to world-class standards whilst honing your leadership skills.”

How do you create culture?

Andela’s unique culture is partly deliberate and partly experimental. The deliberate part is the bit about ensuring that everything that constitutes culture is anchored on the EPIC values. From staffing to programs and initiatives, everything and everyone has to align with an alternate reality we’re creating.

“Is it EPIC?” is a question or phrase that you’ll hear a lot within our borders. It also informs how and who we hire. Andela typically hires highly talented people, but the benchmark doesn’t stop there. Candidates, no matter how fitting they are for the roles they apply to, have to be adjudged to be EPIC before they get the opportunity to join the team. Are they excellent? Are they passionate about what they do? Do they embody integrity? Can they work with or collaborate with other people? Having a team of people driven by the same ideology and mission is critical to maintaining a thriving culture. The same applies to our developers or those who fill core technical roles, as the developer framework will show.

The experimental bit of Andela’s culture comes from the iterations, tests, and surveys carried out frequently to improve our processes across board. We are a learning organization in the truest sense of the word, learning from what has worked and what hasn’t.

“We’re constantly gathering feedback from employees to keep tabs on what initiatives are working and learn which ones require modifications or discontinuation,” Taiwo says. “Having a good culture goes far and beyond things like good pay and HMO coverage. We’re creating an environment where people can constantly grow while they do their jobs. It’s a culture of work that ensures that people have agency and work doesn’t feel laborious. Your objectives are clear and our awesome Operations team makes sure that you don’t have to worry about anything else when you come here other than to do your best work. From catered breakfast and lunch, all-day coffee/tea stations, fruit & snack bars, automated meeting room bookings, active noise management to world-class work tools, play station corner, everything is designed to make the office your second home.”

Taiwo says Andela’s culture fosters discretionary effort1 in every Andelan. “There’s uniformity of purpose across the entire company because every Andelan resonates with the mission. It makes people willingly do their best work without pressure. We’re big on collaboration and our peer review culture ensures that everyone gets feedback that is actionable, specific and kind always.”

How To Scale Culture

Andela currently has offices in Lagos, Kampala, Nairobi, New York, San Francisco, and Austin. Scaling the EPIC culture to all our locations has been instrumental to the overall growth of the company. It plays well into how we wield being distributed as a company. But how does a company scale [its] culture across geographical and cultural borders without breaking things along the way?

Taiwo says companies that are scaling across multiple locations must strike a balance between local nuances and the overall company culture.. “If you go to each of our offices, you’ll definitely notice that they all have the markers that let you know you’re at Andela. But you’ll also notice that each location has unique traits that embody the traditional or local culture available in that location. For example, in our Lagos office, one notable artifact is the famous yellow bus on the third floor, symbolic of the common means of transportation (Danfo) in the city. That way, we’re building several robust sub-cultures that tie in well with the overarching company-wide EPIC culture that rings through and through.”

Andela's office

Danfo in the Lagos office.

Cultured samples

Taiwo says to think of culture as you would vaccinations. Because we’re building an alternate reality from what people are used to, we’re particular about ensuring that the EPIC culture at Andela remains potent enough to alter mindsets to a new and better way to do work and make the most impact on the world. We’re in the business of advancing human potential, afterall.

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