In Conversation With | Kristen Coutts, G Force Manager at G Adventures
An adventure travel pioneer offering the planet's most awe-inspiring selection of affordable small-group tours, safaris and expeditions, G Adventures is a leader in the travel space. With 24 offices across the world, they have managed to create and implement a global culture that is second to none and we wanted to learn more! Culture is a big influence in all that we do at RIGHTSLEEVE and we were thrilled to sit down with the G Force Manager, Kristen Coutts to chat about all things culture and G Adventures.
Here is what we chatted about.
Tell us your story and your journey so far that led you to G Adventures
Travel has always been this burning passion of mine. If I back up a little bit, when I finished university, I decided that I wanted to travel for a while. Prior to that, I had only experienced all inclusive vacations but had not done any backpacking. I decided to travel through Europe for about 3.5 months and met a ton of Australians while I was travelling.That spurred my decision to move to Australia for a year and to travel a little bit around Asia before I came back. It was the most incredible experience of my life. I feel that travel changes you, makes you grow up a little bit and learn through experiences.
After I came back, I worked for TD Bank, for the last 10 years, in their Communications and Creative solutions department, which was an incredible experience. Very different from what I do now but really great! Every vacation I had, I would think about what is the furthest point in the world I can get to - Asia, New Zealand or some other place.
I feel that travel changes you, makes you grow up a little bit and learn through experiences.
When I came up to my 10th anniversary at TD, I thought to myself, you know what? 10 years is a long time to spend at a company. I want to explore what’s out there, check out a new culture, work for somebody, and see where this new path takes me.
I decided to be extremely picky about what I am going to choose as my next career. My thought process was, "I am a loyal person. I spent 10 years somewhere and I could be spending 10+ years somewhere else and so I should make a really informed decision.”
I actually made a pretty intense list of all the things a company needed to have in order for me to go there. I decided that my ideal industry would be travel. I have always worked in communications, events, graphic design and creative solutions - that has always been my background. I wanted to be able to marry the skills that I had with something that I am passionate about, which is travel.
Culture was massive for me
Culture is what dictates your happiness from day to day. And you want to work somewhere where you are happy to work and are excited to get up and go there in the morning. People generally put in longer than nine to five kind of hours in their work these days. If you are going to be somewhere, where you are going to be spending more time than you are with your family, then you want to be somewhere with a great culture.
I have always checked out Canada’s best places to work and G Adventures has consistently been in the top 10. A good reputation was extremely important to me and when I saw a posting come up on a job board, I decided to apply. I came in for my interview and it all went well!
What do you do at G adventures
I am Manager of G force. I head up all things culture, engagement, communications and events.
How long was the interview process?
It wasn’t long really. I applied in late August, came for my interview in early September. I got my offer soon after. I pushed the start date a little bit just because I wanted to wrap up things at my other company and started in late October.
Tell us more about G Adventures
To me, G Adventures is a family and that is something I have never experienced anywhere before. A great example of that would be all the people who came in for our CEO Manager summit. I have never met them before but they already knew who I was because of the activity that happens on G Nation - which is our internal social platform.
I was greeted with hugs and they brought little treats from all the places they are from. Everyone is just so kind and generous.
I got married in December and took some time off for my honeymoon in January. I went to Hong Kong, Thailand and Maldives - and I knew that we have one of our bigger offices in Thailand and wanted to check it out to see what it is like. I had not met anybody from the Thailand office before or corresponded with any of them.
I got lost and couldn’t find the office. I went to a hotel, asked them for their wifi, and said, “I want to come to your office, but I'm lost and don’t know where I am going!”
He said, “wait there”.
Him and another colleague, came and got me on their motorcycle. They put my husband on the back of their other motorcycle, gave us a little tour of the city and brought us to their office. They introduced me to everyone and made us lunch.
I’ve never felt so instantly welcomed and a part of family. And a lot of these people have worked here for a long time - 10+ years or so. When you start and you are a brand new person, you think it will take you time to build that rapport with people but it was instant acceptance. And it has been wonderful.
How long have you been with G Adventures for?
About 5 months at this point.
How do you define culture at G Adventures?
Culture is what makes people get up in the morning to come to work. Culture is what makes people happy to be here and culture is what unites our company around the globe.
We have 24 global offices. We have got offices in Toronto, U.K., Australia, Uzbekistan, Japan and lots of other places. The size of the offices varies but no matter where you live in the world or where you work, you still feel just as much a part of the G family as you do if you are in Toronto, where a lot of our major support centres are.
Our culture is everything to us that unites us.
Did you always want to work as a culture manager?
I had done some roles in my previous company that were a bit of a hybrid role. For instance communications for engagement.
But I can’t say I actively sought out to work in a talent agency supporting culture. For me it ended up being a no brainer because I felt like I am great at communications and events and I wanted to work somewhere where your job is to make people happy.
I didn’t know something like this could exist but I cannot imagine something better really.
We are seeing an influx in culture oriented positions. In your opinion, why is that and how has the field transformed?
I think it is due to the fact that there is such a change in the behaviour of millennials. There is a focus on instant gratification - you have to be happy and you are going to go where the wind blows you. Granted that some of these are stereotypes but I think that companies are placing a greater importance on culture to keep up with the times.
You see a lot of big tech startups doing things similar to what G has.
Major brownie points for popcorn and ice cream bars but I have to say that culture goes deeper than that. It is rooted in your work and what you do day to day. Those little things are cherry on top of the sundae but your sundae should be your main focus.
How did you come up with the cultural values for G adventures?
These core values were not created by management. Several years ago we had a cross section of employees from across the globe who were flown to Vegas to spend a weekend there. They were tasked with defining what we do and this is what they came up with.
We love changing people’s lives
We lead with service
We embrace the bizarre
We create happiness and community
We do the right thing
What is really great is that it doesn’t matter whether you are our office staff, our supplier or one of our CEOs in the field, these core values apply across the board. These are the things that everybody lives by here. If these things don’t resonate with you then this may not be the place for you.
What is the relationship between brand and culture?
We are a customer-focused business. Our job is to lead with service and put our passengers on kick-ass trips. We do the same internally... leading with service. And this makes our culture here.
This is how we attract our talent. This is how our talent stays. This is how we foster relationships in the company. We eat, sleep, breathe our core values and shared beliefs. To be at G means that you are a part of our culture and always have the customer at heart.
Who is in charge of culture?
Here at G, we are all responsible for our culture. It takes every single one of our office staff, CEOs, and suppliers to keep our culture alive. My team here is called G Force, and we’re here to enable engagement around the world. This team is really about making sure that we are giving people the resources they need in order to be engaged in the company.
But we three alone don't own culture. Each regional office around the world has its own unique culture - geographical, religious cultures that won’t be the same as Toronto. We set up a program called our True Believer program. We manage it from here in Toronto - our basecamp. But we have one to two true believers in each office around the globe and they are dedicated as the cultural ambassadors for that office. We have monthly Skype calls and all of that kind of stuff, where we catch up on what’s going on on the ground and what support they need from us.
We also provide each office with a monthly staff appreciation budget, so that they are empowered to make that decision to keep their culture alive there. For instance, for us, we may want to celebrate Valentine’s day but that might not be a big deal to another office but they might have another national holiday they may want to celebrate. So they are given that discretion to do what they want and keep their culture alive.
Part of your job is to keep people happy and motivated but how do you stay motivated?
I love having stuff to look forward to. To me travel is something I LOVE! Any opportunity for travel, whether directly or indirectly, motivates me.
We have a really cool initiative called Connection Camp coming up. There are about 130 of us from around the company that are going to India in April. It is a full week long camp of awesome leadership activities. We are throwing a full on Indian wedding while we are there. I love that that’s part of my job! Right from now till then it is about working on getting people to India, coming up with the itinerary, making sure people are happy when they are there and it is really cool and motivating just to see how excited everybody is to go there.
What does on-boarding look like at G Adventures?
As part of the on boarding process, you go through a series of interviews.
The first part of the interview process involves a video interview. You are asked questions that you have 30 seconds to prepare for and answer. Candidates that are moved on the next stage, come in to meet with the hiring manager and their would-be colleagues. And then you go for your G factor interview. That’s where you get to sit in the ball pit and spin the wheel of questions and you get to do quirky stuff like dancing and sing the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air song. It is all about seeing whether you embrace the bizarre, which is one of our core values.
I also received a welcome e-package that told me more about my team, activities I could do with them to get to know them better and fun facts about them. It gave me a better sense for this community and family before I even started working here. I also went to the company’s annual conference, called G-Stock, and got a really good glimpse of the culture.
And then when I started, I went through a 3 day program called Premiere, which is a program that my team facilitates here.
The reason why we facilitate it is that we are then your contact for anything engagement, culture and getting to know the company. We are your cultural ambassadors and provide that first glimpse into the company when you start working here.
The first day is about the why, the second day about the how and the third is about the what.
On the first day we go through a lot of our core values, our competencies and the qualities that we look for in our leaders. The second day is all about making meaningful connections with your colleagues and improving your communications skills. The third day is a little bit more about some of the products we offer, how we structure the trips, all of those kind of things. That gives people a really good orientation and frames the culture better in their minds.
In that training, we don’t go over your benefits, we don’t go over your freebies, we don’t talk about popcorn - we don’t talk about any of that stuff. Because this 3 day program is really just about framing your mind around our culture and whether this is the right place for you.
After the training, you get your big swag bag and we have a graduation ceremony after you are done Premiere. We play Vitamin C’s graduation song! And people come up and they get their G pin.
What is the G factor?
We have 7 core competencies that we look for at G. To start at the company we want to see that you are creative, communicative, collaborative.
We also look for leadership qualities. People who are curious, confident, courageous, out of the box thinkers and who are consistent in their beliefs are the ones we want to hire and they also eventually become leaders of the company.
How do you benchmark your company culture against market practices?
We have a couple of surveys that we do throughout the year, one is called the gauge and the other one is called the pulse. And they are done to measure engagement around the globe.
We want to see how engaged people are in their job and hence there are all these open fields that they can answer. We use a third party company so that people don’t feel that their answers can be pinned to them - it is a completely anonymous survey. People give us feedback on how they want things changed, improved or if they like the way things are. We are constantly listening to our employees and making sure we are acting on that feedback.
What do you do in these situations:
1. When employees start to leave and it brings morale down
We have a really amazing retention rate. For the folks on my team, Sean has been here for 8 years, and Jenny for 4. So people stay here for a really long time because they are so happy here. As a result, I haven't really experienced a low morale yet.
2. Someone does something that goes against the cultural values of G adventures
We take our core values really seriously. So if someone does something that goes against that, it is definitely something that we look to rectify.We also have a performance excellence program. People set goals at the beginning of each year and then have one on ones with their managers throughout the year. These are ongoing conversations so that everyone is on the same page.
What’s on your bucket list in terms of travel?
Africa is really big on my list. We have an office in South Africa that I really want to visit at some point. Another place I really want to visit is Morocco!