Leadership Under The Microscope – What makes Synergy International so successful?

Victoria University has recently formed new research centre to investigate business practices from variety of disciplinary perspectives. As its first collaborative project, the centre put together team of leadership studies, industrial relations, management, organisational psychology and workplace communication experts to investigate leadership in Wellington’s successful IT company Synergy International.
Our aim was to find out what made this company work so well. For six months teams collected data through observations, surveys, interviews (both formal and informal), and by recording workplace interactions. We interviewed the chief executive officer David Irving and number of senior management staff, including Ian Clarke, the chief financial officer and Garth Hamilton, the general manager.
The team’s main finding? It’s the skilful balance demonstrated by Synergy’s leaders between nurturing positive culture and constantly evaluating their environment that delivers Synergy’s success.

Emerging patterns
The two dominant themes that came out of our research, or the two sides of the measurement, were labelled ‘evaluating’ and ‘building’.
Evaluating describes the different ways in which the organisation continuously assesses its performance. Their responses to our questions showed that all members of the senior management team at Synergy place emphasis on evaluating three key areas: themselves, the ‘health’ of the organisation as whole, and the business environment in which they operate.
Building symbolises the process by which Synergy has grown in staff numbers, and in the complexity of new projects. Our analysis identified three components of this active building pro-cess: Synergy’s creativity of approach, the way it shapes new employees, and the value it places on its people.
Maintaining balance between evaluating and building is key contributor to Synergy’s success.

Maintaining balance: The juggling leader
Synergy’s leaders have always displayed impressive awareness, actively monitoring both themselves and their role in the organisation. The founders, David Irving and the late Chris Comber, had from the outset recognised that IT workers tend to be truer to their profession than their organisation, and so company policies have developed in such way that, as Irving puts it, “employees don’t compromise their professional values for the sake of the company”. Put another way, the workplace culture is intentionally congruent with the workers’ values. In fact, the importance that people like Irving, Clarke and Hamilton place on knowing how their people feel has led to the rejection of contracts with organisations that they felt were inappropriate.
Being able to gauge your operating environment is an acknowledged factor in business success. At Synergy, evaluation of the environment is applied across all areas of the organisation. For example, targeted recruitment strategies to identify ‘A’ players demonstrate the leaders’ effective evaluation of the potential IT employee pool. And since they have similarly identified that desire for continual growth and development necessitates move to offshore business, they have been quick to ensure an international mix to their staff, while simultaneously maintaining strong sense of being New Zealand company, and treasuring the Kiwi attributes of hard work, responsibility and ingenuity.

Synergy’s creativity is fundamental attribute of the organisational culture. Over and above its start in life as an entrepreneurial venture, the organisation has maintained culture of flexibility and actively sought staff satisfaction. To their credit, these sentiments are echoed by the senior management team and staff at all levels. Irving and his fellow managers repeatedly stress the high value that the company attributes to creativity; they actively encourage staff to innovate and look for novel solutions, and they look for these skills among potential new recruits. Commonly heard organisation catchphrases include: “Doing things differently”, “There must be better/smarter way” and “Taking calculated risks”.
Alongside this creativity, the continued shaping of the organisational culture was apparent through recruitment and organisational development strategies. Although Synergy uses peer reviewed recruitment process to select workers with similar attributes to the existing staff, it also ensures that recruits include mavericks to bring in “those who will shake us up and challenge us”, says Irving.
Valuing all staff members forms an integral part of their success and growth, and both in interviews and meetings Hamilton and Irving repeatedly call staff the company’s “asset”. The continued communication of organisational changes through multiple channels, the accessibility and effort put into staff meetings, apparent generous remuneration and excellent staff facilities (for example, dedicated recreation space) signals to staff that they are valued.
And unlike other IT companies, the expectation is that Synergy employees work 40-hour week. If staff are found not to be taking holidays or in the extreme “sleeping under desks”, Irving sends them on enforced breaks. However, the most important aspect of valuing has emerged as the respect and collegiality observed between all staff regardless of their level in the organisation. Furthermore, valuing has not been limited to staff members. The evaluation of the larger environment has led to continued focus on valuing customers, including potential customers and ex-staff who may provide future business connections.

Moving into the future with balance
The overall growth and development of the organisation has been far more positive than the above example. Outside consultants have recently been appointed to improve the organisation’s growth strategy. The appointment of Mark Kidd, management consultant who has now been working for some months with the senior management team, indicates their reflective, evaluative processes; they have recognised that they may not have the expertise to move to medium-sized organisation without some further learning from outside the organisation. Thus, the cycle of building begins. Any new initiatives will be carefully aligned with the organisation’s values and goals, and will closely reflect the culture of respect. This repeated focus on valuing staff may sound too good to be true, but as Garth Hamilton said, “If it becomes company nobody wants to work for you’re just going to end up with rubbish workers who just work for money”.
The balance that Synergy’s leaders uphold is no mean feat, and the concerted effort that this requires will remain an integral factor in their ongoing success.

Janet Holmes is professor of linguistics and Melanie Kan research fellow with the Centre for Applied Business Research at Victoria University.

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