Best Companies to Work For in Greater China 2015: Rackspace gives its workforce an ‘inspiring mission’ where fanatical achievements are celebrated
It doesn’t take long for visitors to get-up-and-go cloud company Rackspace to be swept up in its gung-ho atmosphere, especially if another new deal has just been clinched. When that happens in its Hong Kong office, a bell gongs and there are bursts of cheering and applause from the 64 staffers spread across the open-plan space. This joyful hubbub is music to the ears of management, which encourages such responses from what it terms “the community of Rackspace employees”, adding to the list of what makes the company special.
“Our chairman stresses that every ‘racker’ should be a valued member of a winning team on an inspiring mission,” says Adam McCarthy, senior director and general manager for Asia. “We take these words seriously, with each manager using them as the guiding force behind their management style.”
To emphasis their role in the Rackspace “community”, each employee is referred to as a “racker” and treated “like friends and family”, McCarthy says. “[This] is one of our six core values, since being a racker is not just about a day job. Here, getting to work in the morning is like arriving at your second home and being surrounded by friends and family.”
As a leading managed cloud company, Rackspace covers monitoring, security, backup and recovery, storage, and reporting services. Applications that it hosts include websites, databases, intranets, finance and HR systems, and email. Opened in 2008, the Hong Kong office is the company’s only workplace in Greater China.
Stepping into the partition-free office, visitors blink as they are greeted by words representing the company’s core values that are painted on the walls, as well as a sea of national flags, each hanging from the ceiling above rackers’ desks to identify their origins. The company’s staff in Hong Kong hail from a number of different countries, including the UK, South Africa, New Zealand, India and Canada.
According to McCarthy, this flag-hanging practice started in the UK. “A flag represents something about where you are from or something you are passionate about. Not everybody has a national flag as they don’t want to be too nationalistic, so they have flags representing their favourite things, like Game of Thrones,” he says.
“Our culture and policies are broadly the same between locations in the rest of the world; the flag is a great example. However, small differences are addressed here as we are more family-focused in Hong Kong, given the Chinese culture. For instance, when festivals like Chinese New Year come around we have early leaving times, but that’s not what we do in the US or UK.”
The healthy mix of backgrounds in the Hong Kong office is not an accident. McCarthy explains that as a pan-Asia office they welcome people from all over in order to add to the diversity. A lot of effort is also put into ensuring equal opportunities are enjoyed by all – perhaps best represented by the fact that half of the management team is made up of women.
McCarthy believes that it is important to spend time chatting with rackers to ensure they are happy and share the same goals. “A meaningful job inspires people to learn more and enables them to perform better than what they are doing today. If you can put these inspiring elements in place, the retention rate will be high. When I am smarter and more capable today than I was yesterday, why should I leave? People don’t quit in a bad job, but in a bad environment.”
Rackspace has a strong culture of challenging people to reach their limit by pushing for meaningful outcomes. Senior marketing manager Janet Yu gives an example: “My general manager [McCarthy] challenged me right from the start, but it was justified because it encouraged me to think a lot more. Here we challenge colleagues by asking them difficult questions, but we also make sure they have a chance to speak up and share their thoughts and feelings. It’s all about what the bigger picture is, why we’re doing what we do, what goals we are aiming for, and what we achieve if we tackle this challenge head on.”
Another important factor that keeps Rackspace at the top of its game is transparency. Information is exchanged freely between frontline rackers and leadership, with everyone working as a team. Rackers may voice their concerns and share contrary thoughts without being seen as uncooperative.
The company is conscious of employee satisfaction and monitors this through the biannual RackerPulse exercise, as well as the annual Great Place to Work survey. Both gather feedback about rackers’ views on their own team, management, and the company as a whole.
“The staff survey is similar to how we engage our customers and see if they are happy with us,” McCarthy explains. “Apart from this, we also require one-on-one meetings, held at minimum biweekly, preferably every week, for managers to connect with their teams.
“We also have a monthly OpenBook talk about every aspect of the company, its overall performance and activities, which comes with an open Q&A session. Additionally, we create multiple ways to anonymously provide feedback via the web, so there is no reason one can’t say something.”
In the last 18 months, the company has focused on interconnectivity and insisted on transparency across the board. This year, it encouraged staff not just to work hard, but find meaning in what they are doing and understand the value it adds to its customers.
McCarthy explains that if people grasp this challenge, and see how they made a specific contribution to those outcomes, they would realise their power helped bring about a successful outcome. This helps a lot because everyone truly feels that as part of the team, they contributed to the success the company has.
“If you have the right people, you will get the right result,” he says. “I find it gets very hard to do things consistently and to do them well while letting go, so your team can work to their best potential and be creative and autonomous.
“It’s very difficult to balance and it’s also very hard when you bring in new people who aren’t used to it. Especially in a technology company, you want them to follow rules, but we are a service company that just happens to use technology. So, customers are almost never repeatable or ‘restructurable’. That lies in the trusting and letting go, and believing your employees will give you the best work if you let them.”
Looking ahead, the company will be asking volunteers to talk about the things that Rackspace is doing well, and those that it needs to improve on. “We are going to make checks every month or so,” McCarthy says. “The goal will be finding out whatever place we’ve reached this year, and challenge the team to get higher next year.”
Combining strengths to go above and beyond
While Rackspace agrees that finding staff members who are an appropriate fit is important, the company is also keen to cultivate and develop great corporate culture. Identifying employee strengths is a major focus. Staff members list their five top personal strengths on the back of their staff ID card as a reminder of skills to share with colleagues. Knowing each other’s strengths, and who to approach for help in specific areas, has been a driving force behind the company’s success as a Best Company to Work For.
Anita Weppenaar, head of technical services for Asia, is a firm believer in the strategy. According to her list, she is competitive, focused, futuristic, a learner and an achiever. Born in South Africa, she joined the UK office as a lead engineer seven years ago.
“Rackspace is definitely different from other companies I have worked for, and the company culture plays a key part. The work is challenging, with a requirement to make sure clients’ business stays online,” she says.
“As a customer-focused company, we help clients succeed and look at ways we can help them achieve their business goals. I also help and guide my team to grow and achieve their personal success. It’s a good feeling when you know that you can make a difference in people’s lives – not just for our customers, but also for the people in the office.”
In the third quarter of this year, Weppenaar won the “Fanatical Jacket” award. This is the highest honour a racker can receive, and it recognises those who have gone so far above and beyond the call for “fanatical support” that it puts them in a customer service “straitjacket”.
“I was nominated by my team and it’s very special for me to win,” she says. “The result was announced during the OpenBook talk when the whole company gets together monthly. It’s very special and a big compliment to me because this means I am doing a good job for my team.”
Theoretically, vacancies at Rackspace are initially advertised internally to promote expansion of the racker family from within. But Anthony Ho, business development manager for Asia-Pacific, took an unusual path to employment at the company.
“I joined the company because it is globally renowned as a Best Company to Work For,” he says. “Though there weren’t any job openings, I began calling into the sales number on almost an hourly basis, but in vain. Later I got hold of some managers’ contact details from LinkedIn. So I emailed them for an opportunity to meet for a cup of coffee. Eventually, a manager contacted me for an interview and I landed this job.”
Ho is keen to highlight the training opportunities at the company. These include Rackspace cloud training (aka CloudU and “Hosting Essentials”) for those new to the company and industry, Mandarin training and public exam-taking (HSK) on a voluntary basis, and technical training like the AWS (Amazon Web Services) training involving business accreditation, technical accreditation, TCO accreditation, and solutions architecture.
“It’s easy to lose count of how many opportunities we have for training and development,” Ho says. “I failed the AWS but will take part again this month after much support and assistance from my peers and management. In addition to managers’ recommendations for reading from time-to-time, it’s not surprising to actually receive suggested book titles directly from management.”
In terms of personal development, every team manager will speak with each racker about short-, mid- and long-term objectives every few months. These mentoring conversations result in realistic goal-setting, strategic planning, and sharing of experience. If properly planned and executed, it is really difficult not to move in the right direction, Ho says.
The abundance of mentors at Rackspace Hong Kong is probably one of the key ingredients to its success as an office, he adds. “My mentors are primarily from within my own team. From what I have seen, good mentorship consists of two-way conversations, willingness to challenge each other and question one another’s actions, as well as constructive criticism following passive observation.”