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Forever young

By Chris Atchison | January 18, 2012
Forever young
Vikas Gupta

CEO Vikas Gupta overhauls TransGaming’s talent management strategy to attract and retain the type of dynamic, entrepreneurial minds he needed to grow revenue and successfully compete with much larger organizations. This meant building a culture of innovation and agility, which included empowering staff; from increased participation in the hiring process to greater decision-making in day to day activities.

If transforming a company’s culture in the midst of a growth spurt by replacing half its staff takes managerial courage, Vikas Gupta might just be Canada’s bravest entrepreneur.

Because that’s exactly what Gupta, the CEO of TransGaming did a few years ago when he had a game-changing epiphany courtesy of a friend’s dinnertime question: “If you were to leave TransGaming and start a new company tomorrow,” the friend wondered, “how many employees would you take with you?” The query and answer left Gupta intrigued but concerned. “It was one of the most prolific questions I had ever been asked in my career,” Gupta recalls. “But the trouble was, the answer wasn’t, ‘All of them.’” 

As a result, the CEO took a hard look at his corporate culture and determined it needed a complete overhaul. He discovered that TransGaming’s hiring strategy was not effective in recruiting and retaining the type of dynamic, entrepreneurial minds he would need to grow the firm’s market share and compete with other interactive entertainment firms 100 times its size, while generational gaps were having an indirect impact on the bottom line. With employees’ average age hovering around 32, TransGaming’s Generation X workers required different motivation and communication than its Generation Ys, and vice versa. The problem was, neither demographic groups’ divergent needs were being properly addressed, resulting in a disconnect with management.  

Gupta, like so many CEOs of small-to-medium-sized businesses operating in fast-changing industries, came to understand that TransGaming’s competitive advantage was its people. While the firm enjoyed healthy annual revenue just shy of $1.6 million at the time, its top-line financial results could only be improved if he had the right team – from software engineers to marketing professionals –to produce cutting-edge technology and stay ahead of the lightning-fast digital media development curve. If he succeeded, Gupta envisioned exponential growth for TransGaming. If he failed, the company would be a footnote in Canadian tech industry history. 

But striking the perfect personnel mix to achieve those results would require some tough decisions. After mulling over his friend’s question, the CEO started cleaning house. Some staffers were let go, while others were displaced through restructuring. In the end, half of his workforce was replaced by new staffers whose attitude, skills and drive gelled with his future vision for the firm. Thus began a process of cultural change at TransGaming that would see the firm’s revenue more than double over three years and entrench its position as a global leader in interactive entertainment. 

So, how did he enact such a dramatic transformation?  First, Gupta and his managers took a hard look at their firm’s core values and began rewriting them. “Because we’re in the technology and digital media business, we’ve always taken a close look at how our industry is evolving,” he explains. “We constantly re-evaluated our compelling value proposition, the competitive pressures we or our partners were facing, then built technology to take advantage of that.” 

Gupta decided that building a culture founded on agility and innovation was essential, which meant he needed to hire the right type of tech professional to reflect that new thrust. So, the CEO introduced a new hiring process consisting of multiple candidate interviews involving staff at all levels, culminating in a final interview in his office. But there was a twist: anyone involved in the interview process was able to reject a candidate at any time in the recruitment cycle. “If someone says, ‘My gut says this person doesn’t fit here,’ that’s good enough for the company,” Gupta explains. When he started the process, the CEO rejected 50 to 60 per cent of the candidates that reached his desk. But after spending time with staff and reinforcing the profile of the ideal employee TransGaming was aiming to hire, that rejection rate dropped to nearly zero. 

Another key plank in the firm’s cultural renaissance was employee empowerment. Just as workers would have the ability to reject job candidates, they also needed the power to make entrepreneurial decisions in their daily jobs. To pump up his workers’ innovative muscles, Gupta focused on regular company-wide communications that provided context on the firm’s big-picture strategic objectives. Guided by their managers, employees were left to figure out the details of how they would achieve those business results. “We’ve got people who are at junior levels putting together business cases and case studies for why we need to change certain things or address a particular market opportunity,” Gupta explains. His overarching message: leadership is everyone’s responsibility. 

As part of that empowerment approach, he also implemented a system of constant feedback. This was as much a tactic to ensure results as it was a tool to cater to feedback-craving Gen Ys. Managers are now required to meet once a week with their teams, and conduct one-on-one coaching sessions with individual employees on at least a bi-weekly basis. The tactic worked eventually, but implementation had its bumps. Much to Gupta’s chagrin, busy managers often focused their attention on task management rather than staff motivation.  “We’ve since been educating managers on the basics of how to manage,” the CEO says. “That’s not about giving people tasks, responsibilities and deadlines. Part of management around here is getting to know individuals, how they’re doing, looking for trends in their personalities, then isolating longer term trends in their behaviour and attitude.” 

Realizing that many younger professionals are just as interested in understanding their career path as earning a hefty pay cheque, Gupta invited his staff to define their job description – both what it was and what they wanted it to be. He even moved to accommodate their workplace and lifestyle preferences. Now, for example, employees can Tweet their friends or surf Facebook throughout the day, as long as they understand their responsibilities and deliver. The result has been a shockingly low staff turnover rate of three per cent.   

To continue innovating and developing new technology, Gupta decided to take a playful approach and create what he calls innovation “sandboxes” where employees could experiment with new products and technology. One example of a sandbox in action: when management identified gesture-based game play as an important function to incorporate into its GameTree TV product, a senior engineer with experience in the area expressed his interest in the project and took ownership. Thanks to his efforts and the cultural willingness to allow him to tinker with the technology until he got it right, gesture-based gaming is now a core GameTree feature. 

Unfortunately, the process of innovation is never perfect. That’s why Gupta made it known that failure would be tolerated—at least to a degree. But rather than waste years on a product that might not work, Gupta encouraged his research and development department to innovate and produce new technology at a rapid pace and then field test it. “That allows us to get a product launched, experiment, and if it fails, it’s not going to have as much of an adverse impact on the company as a massive, multi-million dollar investment over several years,” he explains.

“Implementing core values and creating that strong cultural ethos is the multi-million dollar challenge that any CEO experiences,” he says. “Anybody here would throw themselves in front of a bus for anybody else. When we ask people to pull all-nighters, they don’t hesitate. That’s the kind of culture we’ve created.” 

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