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Embedding organisational culture: 5 tips from AO.com founder

Throughout 2018, we’ve hosted a series of #ScaleUp events for business owners and entrepreneurs in association with Enterprise Nation. At our last #ScaleUp event of 2018 AO.com’s founder, John Roberts, talked passionately about the importance of organisational culture.

For John, it’s how AO makes customers feel that sets it apart from its competitors, and this can only come from the people the company employs. There is an AO way of doing things, and every employee understands and embraces it.

Here are five ‘people’ things that John believes AO does differently:

1. Being good enough for mum

An AO employee’s abiding principle is to do the right thing.

“I want every person who works here to think that if they had to go home and explain a decision they had made to their mum, and the reason why, that she would be proud of them. If they can think that then they have probably made the right decision.”

Doing the right thing might mean an emphatic, sincere apology if something goes wrong, followed by doing whatever it takes to put the matter right. Or going the extra mile to research and recommend a product that best suits a customer’s needs.

2. Obsessing about the little things

At the start AO set out to compete first on price, and then on delivery, becoming an early adopter of next day and weekend delivery slots. But John came to realise that the hard thing isn’t WHAT you deliver but HOW you do it.

“Very few businesses obsess about the little details. But these are what make the difference.”

What does this mean in practice? For a customer, it means being phoned by a driver to let you know what time your delivery will arrive. Or finding a plant or flowers with your delivery because the driver discovered that it was your wedding anniversary. For the drivers, it means finding two fresh bottles of cold water waiting for them in their van each morning.

3. Leading by example

Many businesses claim that their senior people lead by example but they don’t always follow it through when it really counts. When John Roberts says it, though, he really means it.

“You can only expect your culture to permeate if you lead by example. I’m always proud if one of our people takes their lead from me.”

Having said that there is the occasional exception:

“I remember when we designed special delivery vehicles for the German road network, only a few centimetres lower than the standard height of the tunnels. I didn’t volunteer to drive them, and even as a passenger I ducked every time we approached a tunnel!”

4. Creating a foundation of trust

So how does AO establish trust amongst the people who work there? Trust comes from embedding the principle of doing the right thing and then letting each person decide what that means to them.

“If you encourage people to obsess about the detail, and instil in them the desire to do the right thing, then trust follows. It’s about principles over prescriptions. Inspiration over instruction.”

The more a person feels trusted, the more willing they are to make decisions and take responsibility for their actions. A positive side-effect for AO is that fewer managers are required, resulting in a flatter, leaner organisation.

5. Recruiting using the Positivity Test

Some years ago John and his fellow leaders took their best and most effective employees, and distilled their combined experience into a list of skills and qualities that the ideal AO.com employee would have. From that list they devised a simple test, the Positivity Test, that they could use to shortlist and assess candidates at interview.

It has become AO’s ‘secret sauce’. Even today, if you want to work at AO.com then first you must pass the Positivity Test.

Want to read more about organisational culture? Ann Pickering, Head of HR here at O2, talks about how O2’s own culture drives everyone throughout the organisation.

 



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