A unique culture and spirit: How Quantis empowers millennials, avoids hierarchy

With eight offices across Europe, North America and South America, Quantis sets itself apart from other consultancies through its unique culture based on minimal hierarchy and infused with a dynamic and collaborative spirit. To feed this culture, the entire group comes together once a year for a week-long, off-site seminar. Quantis has been growing in staff size by 25–30 percent a year for the last four years with no intention of slowing down.

Quantis CEO Emmanuelle Aoustin shared her insights about leading an organization of 100-plus staff to pioneer a new approach to sustainability and culture, both for themselves and their clients. This interview was edited for clarity.

Emmanuelle Aoustin, Quantis CEO

Shannon Houde: Tell me a bit about your history with Quantis.

Emmanuelle Aoustin: I started working with Quantis as a client when the founders were still getting Ph.D.s and starting to build the company. I was initially attracted to the people at Quantis — they were genuine, friendly, welcoming. I was captivated by the level of expertise and integrity they were bringing to the projects. I also appreciated the special care and attention they were giving me as a client at Veolia, where I was the environmental footprint coordinator and project manager in the sustainability department. When I considered a career change, Quantis was an immediate choice.

Houde: After a few years with Quantis, you transitioned from director of Quantis France to become the group’s CEO. How did you plan to lead differently as CEO?

Aoustin: As soon as I stepped into the role of CEO, I took time to reflect on the role to clarify what that role should be and how I — with my talent, expertise and experience — could support the company and its people. I didn’t take the title of CEO for granted. It’s not a “position,” it’s a role with its specific responsibilities.

Last year, at a [World Business Council for Sustainable Development] dinner with CEOs and other leading sustainability stakeholders, someone asked what I did at Quantis. They asked, “Oh, are you behind the scientific excellence of the deliverables?” And I quickly responded, “No, I am only the CEO.” The table laughed until they realized that it was genuine. I don’t see my role as bigger, “on top of” or validating and deciding everything. The magic happens when we work in collective intelligence.

Some things were really clear right from the start:

Houde: What is so unique about Quantis’ organizational culture?

Aoustin: Quantis is different from traditional organizations in many ways: It’s a living organism where we nurture the power of collective intelligence. Teams self-organize to answer client needs, solve issues or seize opportunities — based on expertise, preferences and availability.

It builds on a type of advice-decision process that avoids hierarchical top-down decisions. By seeking out individuals that are skilled in a specific area or that need to provide inputs for a specific decision, it renders decision-making smarter and more efficient. We strive to create a safe space where talents are encouraged and recognized for the initiatives they take, to answer client needs, to build a better Quantis and to build their professional journeys. And our “Quantis Spirit” fuels it all.

Houde: What is this thing you call the “Quantis Spirit”?

Aoustin: What we call the Quantis Spirit is how we describe our culture. Culture is something you feel, experience and share, not something you can touch or truly describe with words. It’s the Quantis Spirit! It radiates from the inside out. It’s our way of being with each other and working together that transpires to our clients and our partners. We say we work on some pretty serious issues, but we don’t take ourselves seriously. We have built an incredibly positive, calm yet dynamic environment for all of us so we come to work with a sense of well-being and motivation.

The Quantis Spirit is precious and needs care and attention, especially as we scale, open new offices and integrate new talents. The culture is something that our people, clients and partners experience through the interactions with our talents, the website, “Quantis has talent” video or our 1-on-1s or by how we share our news and views on social media.

Houde: What are the challenges of leading in a unique organizational culture?

Aoustin: Here are three.

Houde: What is the secret sauce for creating a unique non-hierarchical culture where millennials will thrive and stay?

Aoustin: While in general millennials entering the workforce have opened us all up to a different way or working, communicating and collaborating, I would say that Quantis was born for millennials. What they are expecting, we have worked hard to create since the beginning of Quantis over 12 years ago. The ingredients to the secret sauce are valid for everyone at Quantis. Here are my top six ingredients, not in order of importance:

Houde: What are the top three things that motivate your millennial staff?

Aoustin: Sometimes it feels like we are all millennials. Even the 50-year-old set on the teams can seem younger in spirit than someone would in a more formal corporate setting. When I asked the millennials sitting next to me what motivates them, they said:

Houde: So I’ve heard the team rave about this annual seminar, but why and how do you manage to do this for a week every year?

Aoustin: It’s indeed the cherry on the top of our (culture) cake — it brings it all together — the culture and the people. The idea that we needed an annual one-week get-together was clear to me early on in my CEO role, and it has proven to be even greater than I expected. It has immense value. All of the people love it and say it is the best moment of the year. I fully agree! Here’s why I kicked this off:

Houde: How does your unique culture give you a competitive advantage — as an employer brand and with clients?

Aoustin: It helps in these areas:

Houde: What learnings from your journey could you share with other sustainability leaders who want to influence culture change within their organizations?

Aoustin: Here are three concluding thoughts.

This article was originally published on GreenBiz.

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Shannon Houde

Shannon is an ICF-certified executive and career coach, and founder of walkoflifecoaching.com; propelling changemakers forward in for impact.