If there was only one article to read to understand what we believe in.
We brought together Marjane Mabrouk, Aimery Duriez-Mise and Marc-Antoine Bernard, the three co-founders of Alenia, to explain Alenia's values. We are sharing this article with you on the blog so that you can immerse yourself in the culture and discover the DNA of this ESN like no other.
Hello to the three of you. How did you identify your values? Did they exist when Alenia was launched?
Marjane Mabrouk - We didn't officially have our values when we launched. But they were in our heads and in our entrepreneurial hearts because it was the desire to do things differently that pushed us into this adventure. We wanted to show the industry that it was possible to develop an IT consulting business, to be experts, while being real, ambitious and caring.
In 2021, two years after the creation of Alenia and after strong growth, we realised that we needed to take the time to make them explicit. We didn't want top-down management to say "these are our values". So we launched workshops with our employees. The first exercise was to represent how people saw themselves at Alenia, the as-is persona. From there, we imagined who we wanted to become, the to-be persona. From the to-be persona, we derived the values that would enable us to achieve this.
For your values, you didn't use words but phrases. Why ?
Aimery Duriez-Mise: It comes from a book! To quickly complete the values exercise, in my previous life, we did it every three or four years. We had a bitter aftertaste because it was very difficult to see the application of these values in everyday life. One book clearly made an impression on us, that of Nick Swinmurn, the founder of Zappos, who talks a lot about culture. On the value part, he writes that most companies just choose a word or a verb for their values, which is extremely reductive and makes them difficult to appropriate. Team spirit, what do you put behind it? What does innovation mean in concrete terms? We told ourselves that we absolutely wanted our values to be at the heart of our daily life and for that, we needed a subject, a verb, a complement, a complete sentence to be sure that there would be no misunderstanding of the message and that we would not find ourselves in a blur that would ultimately suit everyone.
For the record, we recently held several sessions to debrief on Alenia's values and their application and we realised that one of the five values was still unclear. This sentence doesn't say enough about what our intention is and we took the action to rework it. Will you find it in this article? ;)
Marc-Antoine Bernard - The sentences are a good way to detail these values, to have a more precise message. But we also need to explain them and communicate them widely.
Let's start with your first value:
We act with kindness, putting the interests of our customers, our employees and our environment first."
Can you explain what this means and give me a concrete example of its application?
MM - These values are really a compass in our daily life, they prevent us from being driven only by economic performance. We are in a hyper-competitive sector with relatively tight margins and demanding customers. In these stressful environments, the first thing that humans lose is their benevolence, and that's something we certainly didn't want.
The second reason is that benevolence is a differentiating element for us, a really important compass. Saying OK, in front of me, I have someone - be it a client or a collaborator - who has needs, I'm going to listen to them and I'm going to approach them in all truth.
Sometimes these are hard things to say, but they're important so that the collaborator gets better or the client doesn't put themselves at risk. We realise that this is a value that creates a strong impact on the employee and the client because it is a value that requires effort.
What would an example of benevolence with an employee look like?
A customer is not satisfied with an employee because his/her skills do not correspond to his/her expectations. This is a problem to manage, potentially having a negative impact on our image... When this happens - fortunately it is rare - we deal with the subject in a genuine way with the employee, explaining the situation, helping him/her to improve his/her skills, to find a more suitable assignment... there is no question of stigmatising him/her.
ADM - Benevolence also means taking into account the human being as a whole. We consider that humans are naturally good. Afterwards, things happen along the way that sometimes make things more complicated. But naturally he is good. This means that we dig into situations of difficulty to try to understand the whole picture. A difficulty in an assignment, a difficulty with a client, an internal difficulty can often have a personal context, reasons that the employee finds difficult to share.
And our role is to give them confidence so that they can open up about these elements. To take the complexity of the human context as a whole and to listen to the person completely. This means that we have a strong empathy with our employees and vice versa. At Alenia, we have lowered the wall between personal and professional life. We take personal situations into account in a very advanced way (separation, mourning, PMA, birth, young children, sleep problems, depression...)
MM - We are empathetic but we obviously respect the desire of people to open up or not. We listen, we set up the ground and a safe environment for the person to open up. But only if they are comfortable with it.
Does this benevolence also materialise with the clients?
ADM - That's very important. In benevolence, there is the dimension of transparency, the ability to tell the truth, especially in feedback. We have a very strong feedback culture, both internally and with our clients.
Unlike most of our peers, we do not have a subservient attitude, we are not in a client-supplier relationship but in a true partnership. We give very frank and transparent feedback to our customers. We don't hesitate to talk about management methods, to give feedback on what we can see in the field, with complete transparency and honesty, because we have a taste for going out and looking at all the layers of the organisation.
And when we are in difficulty in our missions, we share it with the client. Sometimes a mission is not going as well as usual, it's OK and we discuss it honestly. We'll explain that area of difficulty. This is a very effective way to progress.
We verbalise a lot, we exchange a lot. And we use retro a lot, including with our clients.
Can you tell us what retro is?
ADM - It's a ceremony that comes from the world of Agile and that we have reused on a large scale in the organisation. It's a privileged moment where once per cycle, on average every two weeks, we share what is going well, what is not going well, the difficulties encountered, what actions need to be put in place to make things go better...
We are on a technical level, on the content of the mission, the actions, etc., but also on the feeling: simply put, the level of interaction, of involvement and energy. We regularly do this with clients for whom it can be a little destabilising because they are not used to going into this field, especially if we talk about emotions, but we make them talk in complete transparency.
What if a client is not into this logic of caring because it takes them out of their comfort zone too much?
MM - We take it easier. In fact, it's a question of dosage. If the client is not in this approach, he has his reasons, situational or structural. They were used to a traditional customer-supplier relationship... To adapt, we go more slowly, we respect, we listen and little by little things happen. We have managed to do this with all our customers, even those with whom it was difficult at first. We bring them into our world and into our way of doing things and they become our supports and real allies.
Would you be willing to give up an assignment or a client that did not fit into this logic at all?
ADM- We come back to the fact that we are humanists and that we consider that every human being has a good background. There are circumstances and contexts that make the subject more complex, and at Alenia we also have a mission to help our clients improve their performance and, more broadly, their well-being in their society. From that point on, it would be complicated to explain that we simply refuse to assist a client because our job is to make things better for them.
So it's a real debate: should we refuse certain customers if we consider that we are in an ecosystem that is not benevolent?
Today, this is something we have not done because we consider it part of our mission to help the client restore a benevolent climate. We haven't found any clients who are complacent in a malicious context.
Afterwards, there are more or less difficult contexts. We have found complex ecosystems, it's true. It's hard, but we've really had the satisfaction of seeing clients and ecosystems really and sustainably pivot. It takes a lot of energy but it's very satisfying and it creates a very strong relationship with the client.
MAB - I would like to quote this value in extenso: "We act with benevolence, putting the interests of our clients, our employees and our environment first" to emphasise two dimensions. The first is that we are deliberately not talking about the company. Of course, there is an economic balance to be respected, but it comes later. For example, if an employee has several project choices, he or she has the final say. Even if the economic interest dictates another choice, we give priority to the well-being of the individual.
The second dimension is the environment. We are putting in place numerous initiatives. Calculating our carbon footprint - which is good for the sector! - raising awareness among our teams, providing training, particularly via MOOCs, and supporting external initiatives, is a subject that mobilises us and that we are integrating into the heart of our business with the implementation of a Green IT offer. And we intend to accelerate our efforts in this area.
Your second value is:
"We are working to become the best version of ourselves". What does that mean?
ADM - This is one of our cardinal values, as we are a company that challenges itself very strongly. Our first challenger is ourselves. We have surrounded ourselves with people who are in a continuous improvement process. They seek to grow, to improve in terms of technical skills, soft skills, sports, culture... People who have an incredible thirst for growth.
It is perhaps not a coincidence, we are all 3 clearly in this dynamic. We think that it is fundamental in terms of humility because there is this notion of saying that we are only ever in the process of becoming the best version of ourselves.
To our customers, this notion of humility means two things. Firstly, we are constantly improving. The us of tomorrow or the day after tomorrow will be better than the us of today. And secondly, we don't arrive at the customer's site with our stripes and our assurance that we already know what to do. We look, we listen, we empathise and we look for everything that is right. We are expected to point out what is going wrong, but we also try to bring a vision and a light on everything that is going well with the client, because there are often many things that are going well, but they don't see it anymore.
Internally, we are very focused on personal development. Our library, which is open to the public, is filled with books on this theme and we add to it very regularly. We ask newcomers to read certain reference books. We also have a playlist of podcasts that we love, available for free access.
MAB - There are a lot of Alenia Sharing (team sharing meetings) on this theme, a lot of groups on different angles of personal development. I have a reading list that I can't get through! These sharing moments are mostly about professional topics but not only. We recently had an Alenia Sharing on food and wine pairing...
MM - What explains why we all share this value is that we have surrounded ourselves with people who, before arriving at Alenia, were recognised in the market as experts in their field, ambitious people who have an impact and who like to succeed. They had the courage to come to Alenia to boost a career that was already well underway. Combined with the fact that we have 95% co-optation, it's a bit like the A-players recruiting the A-players.
This value is alive and well because our employees are ambitious people who are demanding first of all of themselves. They want to succeed and this success requires them to question themselves, to improve their knowledge... So that they can say to us, "I have evolved as a person", "I have matured more by coming to Alenia than in X years at my last job". We have a responsibility at Alenia to offer a space in which people can grow.
And you measure this in some way for each employee?
MM - In the managerial framework that we are putting in place, we measure the fact that employees set themselves objectives, so they are responsible for their progress, whether it be in terms of their expertise, personal development, etc. So it's driven by exchanges between the managers and the employees.
And for the managers, we also push them by dedicating time to them, through management training, coaching on managerial practices...
ADM - I'd like to make one quick point. At Alenia, there are many dimensions in which an employee can grow. There is no royal road. In large French organisations, there is a bias that tends to consider that in order to earn a better salary or be more recognised, you have to become a manager, then a manager's manager... The managerial dimension at Alenia is very important, but it is only one dimension among others: expertise, involvement in cross-functional actions, recruitment... Each of these dimensions of leadership has the same weight and interest for our organisation.
Your third value is :
Our emotions are a reflection of our personality, our values and our experiences."
ADM - We are complete human beings. From Monday to Friday, from 9am to 7pm we are in a life context which is work and it is not because we change context that we necessarily change personality.
So this human being is part of an organisation called Alenia and we welcome him in his entirety. Which includes the whole range of human emotions: joy, that's easy. But also sadness and even anger, which are rarely welcome in a professional context, but we strongly encourage everyone to feel free to express and verbalise these emotions.
We try to set an example in this regard. The three of us share our feelings and emotions very strongly. It has happened regularly that one of the three of us is not well in a meeting with a lot of people, there are tears, there is emotion, there can be anger... And that's OK. Verbalising emotions is already a way to regain some control over them. Acknowledging the fact that you can be angry allows you to immediately go down a level.
In the One-to-One meetings we have with our managers, we systematically ask them about their current emotional state. Because we don't approach the exchange with them in the same way if they are exhausted, angry, happy... The exchange will take place in a very different way and we will ask them explicitly about this.
MM - Emotion is information, a signal. It is a signal that there is a need that has not been fulfilled: it may be a need for appreciation, help, support, whatever... Listening to the emotion allows us to deal with the need in a rational way, without hysteria, without a carefree attitude. We prefer to have employees who are happy to come to the office. If we can satisfy the maximum of needs that are in our hands, we will have a collective that will be much more efficient.
MAB - Marjane, you had an example with a client, right?
MM - Yes, I did. We are in a context of organisational transformation. From the first minute of the meeting, the client has a very defensive reaction. We don't understand and this generates an emotion in us, a mixture of frustration and anger, given the investment of time we have put into this file. The first three minutes, we unfold our presentation and we are always faced with a wall. As a result, I stopped the presentation and said to the client, "I sense that there is anger in you and I need to understand why."
I think she was a little disturbed by the question, but at the same time relieved too. And there she began to explain to us all the complex and negative consequences that this project was generating for her teams. We stayed for half an hour listening to her. And then, magically enough, we were able to continue the presentation, echoing and responding to her fears. That's really a signal. Listening to this signal and dealing with it is fundamental, whether with clients or employees.
Do you train your employees in this approach?
MM - We show more by example than we train. It appeals to the deepest parts of each of us. We show our emotions and create this capacity and this security in our exchanges with our employees, to leave space for this if necessary. And we feel that there is a need.
I can cry in a meeting manager, Aimery can cry in a One-to-One or Marc-Antoine can get angry -not often that said but it happens to him- and by doing it and explaining why afterwards and saying, "see, we do it, so be comfortable", it's a way of training by example.
MAB - There is a double dimension in this value. There are my emotions, accepting to let them pass. And the emotions of the other. When I detect emotions in my collaborator, my client, how can I bring him to another level so that we can have this discussion and so that he returns to a more normal state. How can I understand and use this emotional signal?
ADM - Opening up the possibility of verbalising and expressing emotions creates triggers, it's really obvious. It opens the door to real and deep sharing. But we don't force anyone, that's very important. Some people will never feel comfortable enough to go there and that's OK. There is no judgment.
MM - Or they don't feel the need and that's OK too.
ADM - I'm thinking of one of our staff who thought we were weird. For him it was out of the question to show his emotions in this way. I think he would have said he didn't feel the need to. And today, he pivoted on that. Today he thinks it's great and he allows himself to share and get into his emotional state
MAB - It creates an environment of trust...
MM - This type of personality is more comfortable with seeing the other person express a need for emotion. Often an expressed emotion is difficult to receive for the other person. We create that climate that has to work for everyone, the one who needs it and the one who doesn't.
Your fourth value is :
We are a united tribe, our diversity is our strength.
MAB - This is the consequence of the first three values that we have just detailed. If we take benevolence, if we add the best version of ourselves with what it implies of exchanges and sharing and if we accept emotions, the result is a tribe.
A tribe is a group of people who are very close (for those who want to be but respectful of those who would like to be less close) and therefore necessarily united.
It is the family in better, in fact! You can't choose your family. But you can choose your colleagues. And of course, those who are less in need of this closeness are not pushed aside, quite the contrary.
What about diversity?
AMD - Diversity covers a lot of areas that we don't cover at the moment. But it is our ambition!
We are one of the few companies in our field whose CEO is a woman. This is a strong symbol! We are committed to having a balanced male-female mix. Our ratio is around 40% women and it is an indicator that we monitor very closely.
We have a mix of origins. Not necessarily perfect, there are only about 100 of us...
MAB - We have more than 10 nationalities at Alenia!
MM - 10 nationalities is already a good indicator. And we want to accelerate. We are continuing to diversify, whether in terms of juniority, gender equality, women in leadership positions, good salaries, social origin...
ADM - Diversity in terms of career paths too. We are in a field where the career paths are very similar. Basically, 70% engineering school, 30% business school. We really like atypical backgrounds.
Of course, we need skills that are consistent with our jobs, but we appreciate these different experiences. At the moment, we are in the process of recruiting someone who ran a movie theater for two years, who went to the other side of the world to work in social services... That's great! We are convinced that this will bring something to our collective. And we have several profiles like this.
MM - The last axis we are developing is the integration of more disabled people in our company.
Do your customers feel that they are included in the tribe?
ADM - We call our customer parties Alenia & Friends, and that's no accident. We really do have customers that we consider partners and a significant number of them are friends. So yes, we have an extended tribe, very clearly, with customers, partners who are our primary promoters. They come for our services because they recognise the value and they prefer to work with people they get along with and who have values close to their own.
MM - This creates strong professional friendships. In all our dealings with our employees and customers, you can feel the solidarity, the support, the mutual aid.
ADM - Customers regularly recommend us as an employer. To their relatives, to former colleagues, they say "you should talk to Alenia, I think it's a company for you."
Fifth and final value:
Expertise and humility are intimately linked.
MAB - It is - like all the other values - a fundamental value. A client calls us for our expertise, but that doesn't mean we have to come in thinking that everything they've done so far is wrong and that we have to start from scratch. It's up to us to take into account their context, the history of their organisations, which can be complex after mergers, reorganisations... We must arrive with a lot of humility to understand how they work and then bring them our expertise. Little by little. We will never be able to transform them with a magic wand in a few hours or days. And there's almost always a lot of things they've done that are valuable and need to be preserved.
MM - It's also connected to the value on the best version of ourselves. Constantly trying to be the best version of yourself involves being humble. When you have this desire to always improve, you are aware that learning is a permanent thing.
As an organisation, we favor collective successes more than individual ones. We really have a distributed model and that can be an example too or at least one of the safeguards. We want to avoid areas where there is one king who shines and the rest less so. So we really try to have this operational model that is also pushed, that puts forward first a collective success.
ADM - We see quite a lot in this value of training and certification opportunities. Today, we do not necessarily have an extremely structured approach for all profiles, but we strongly encourage our employees to develop their expertise through the entire range of training courses that may exist. There is no budget limit as long as it is consistent with the career path and discussed with the manager.
Have your values changed the relationship with your team, your customers? Are there moments when these values made you change your path?
MAB - We have mentioned the term "compass" several times. That's what these values are for us. When we are lost, when we don't know what to do, the compass helps us make the right decisions, those that are in line with our values.
ADM - When hiring, we systematically share our values with the candidates, taking the time to discuss their feelings and understanding. This is a fundamental point, so much so that if we have any doubt about the adherence to the values, we will consider it a reasonable doubt and we will probably not continue with the recruitment.
Values also come into play in all the complex mission situations. We ask ourselves: we're in a complicated situation, is it related to something that's not aligned with our values? That's really our compass.
To go back to the very beginning of the interview, we created Alenia because the three of us had the need to wake up in the morning and say to ourselves that we were proud and comfortable with what we were doing. And therefore in line with our values. It became our frame of reference.
What's impressive is the very strong appropriation by our employees. Not a week goes by without someone coming to talk to me about the values and their application.
MM - It's a subject that touches the gut! We have opened a space and now this space lives and lives a lot. It is true that it is a permanent requirement for us to respond, to be there, to keep these values alive, to be exemplary. And when we are wrong, to say so. Employees have the freedom to tell us when they feel we have not acted in accordance with our values and we hear them, we apologise, in line with this posture of humility and benevolence.
"Sorry, you're right" is a phrase we have no trouble saying to our employees, even if we are leaders. This kind of exchange further strengthens the mutual trust and relationship between us and our employees. In the long run, we are convinced that this is beneficial and necessary.
What have you put in place to ensure that they are understood and respected on a daily basis?
MM - First of all, we do regular retrospectives. This is a ritual at Alenia, where we start by expressing our emotions. There are good practices for these reviews, and our employees are trained in them. Listening, caring, not cutting off the speaker, trying to understand the other person's needs. These rituals illustrate benevolence, the taking into account of emotions and the united tribe. Because being a tribe also means talking about your problems. The retros allow us to bring our values to life in a very concrete way.
Once a year, we freeze-frame these values. After the first edition, which was very rich - we spent four hours discussing it with almost the entire company - we take the time to question ourselves every year on the values, their application, the need for adjustments, etc.
Within the managerial framework, we have items in the template for the One to One interview that echo some of these values.
Can you tell us what the managerial framework is?
MM - Alenia's managerial framework describes our state of mind, good practices and managerial rituals. It's a close and continuous management. And in particular in the One-To-One interview - which takes place at least every 3 weeks - we are always on the lookout for new ideas.
To come back to the values, we feel that there is a need to bring them to life. The company lives and grows. We listen to all the weak signals emitted by employees throughout the year and the annual review is the opportunity to make these changes. The substance will probably not change, but we will make them evolve or complete. For example, the wording of the emotions value needs to be refined to make it easier to understand, this is already on our radar.
MAB - We need to make progress to allow newcomers to better appropriate the values. In the newcomer's journey, there are moments dedicated to the brand guide and the values, but we need to go further and we are currently thinking about different, more interactive formats.
Do you specifically follow this aspect of understanding and adhesion?
ADM - Absolutely! We have just conducted an internal survey on values, asking three questions: personal adherence to values, their application at Alenia and their application at/with the client. We have a measurement base that we will be able to monitor regularly.
We then discussed all the comments received, including - and especially - the negative ones. The lessons learned were very rich!
MAB - The exchange on a value takes us each time more than an hour and a half!
ADM - It gave rise to very strong debates, which resound for weeks!
MM - It's very easy to list values, but we made the effort to do it well with workshops, by starting at the beginning, by drawing our persona, by integrating a lot of collaborators... And now we are making the effort, through ceremonies and rituals, to make sure that they live. We didn't choose the easy way. Taking the easy way is not worth it.