The Company Culture Factor: how to successfully implement an expansion strategy

An Interview with José Alberto Rodrigues, Managing Director and Site Manager at Zoi

The concept of Company Culture is widely used among HR professionals, and it has been changing the way we think about work. It urges us to consider how we can successfully conduct business while ensuring employees’ wellbeing and happiness. How do you keep your company culture if you expand internationally? How do you adapt to a new country as a company? We discussed these and other topics with José Alberto Rodrigues, Managing Director and Site Manager at Zoi.

BRIDGE IN: Hi José, let’s start with an introduction — what is the path that led you to your current position at Zoi? During my research I saw that you worked for large companies, mainly in Angola and West Africa — how did you transition from big corporates to the leaner world of startups?

José — My education is in human resources management, and it is in this area that I specialized professionally. My first experience after graduation was at CESPU ( Cooperativa de Ensino Superior, Politécnico e Universitário — a higher education institution located near Porto), where during the day I worked at the cooperative and in the afternoon and at night I worked with the president of the institution and an exclusive group to apply to public tenders for public-private partnerships in the healthcare area (at that time, Hospital de Braga). It was a very interesting time for someone who had just graduated from University — I had the opportunity to experience quick and intensive learning on various topics in the field of healthcare, higher education, and obviously Human Resources.

I left CESPU in 2006–2007 because following an invitation I had to come to the Lisbon City Council, as an adviser to a counselor — at the time the Mayor was Mr. Carmona Rodrigues. I decided to take a risk and leave the career that I had just started in the healthcare and higher education area to go to a political position. So, I took the new challenge and came to Lisbon, and I loved it. Lisbon at the time was not as sexy as it is now, but we already had a lot going on: “Lisboa Dakar”, “Rock in Rio” … And as we had the authority over all environment and public space matters, everything went through our office and I helped to deal with private operators. Political issues arose and the Municipality executives decided to resign, so I also had to leave.

I was already in Lisbon, so I started activating the contacts I had in higher education, which led me to my next challenge, to be a member of the board at a college called ISEC — Higher Institute of Education and Science. The institution was much smaller back then than it is now, with around 1000 students, but a very interesting one and with a very strong focus in the areas of education and aeronautical sciences.

After some time I felt the need to have a professional experience abroad. That is when the opportunity to go to Angola with KPMG arose, as a senior human resources consultant. I decided to accept a position that undoubtedly radically changed my life. It was an adventure that lasted only 6 months, as KPMG in Angola was facing some challenges at that time. Then I had to go looking for something else, and I received an offer from SGS (Société Générale de Surveillance), a Swiss company focused on pre-shipment certifications and the oil sector. I learned a lot, it was a very interesting dynamic where we had to grow the company despite the challenges that the Angolan Government imposed on us.

Working in Angola also means that you have to train local talent and then move somewhere else: SGS wanted me to leave Angola to take a position within the company in another country. But I was really enjoying being there, so I joined Global Forwarding, a division of DHL. I had to manage several issues, which had to be quick wins for the company. It was not always easy, as we had to reduce massively the number of employees, divest in some businesses, but grow fast in some other ones. The project went well, and I was promoted to head of the West Africa area, a huge challenge. 9 extremely different countries, 3 languages and cultures. After some time, the company wanted me to move to Lagos, Nigeria, but it couldn’t be an option for me and so I left. The time to return to Portugal had come.

It was very tough: being almost 8 years away means that when you return, everything is different. You are different, your friends are different … It was a complex time, it took me 2 years to adapt, I made some decisions at a professional level and not all went well.

Due to the relationship I had previously established with Rock in Rio, I had the opportunity to lead a new project: LACS. Rock in Rio introduced me to LACS investors who had the great idea to rehabilitate a building that had been abandoned for 25 years. I had never had similar experiences before but I was presented with the possibility of being part of the project management team and I immediately felt that I had to accept it. It was a successful adventure: we were able to do the work in record times, we were able to fill the building with fantastic companies and people — DefinedCrowed, MyCujoo, EDP, Cognizant… there was — and there still is — a very healthy mix of corporate and startups, all in one building which has a spectacular rooftop in Lisbon’s Alcântara area. After this building, we started the project for the new one in Cascais, and, after I left, the project in Anjos was also delivered. My kudos to LACS partners and team!

LACS was open, everything was working, and I started to be curious to know what life was like in the tech startups I had seen at LACS. It was here that I crossed paths with Zalando. No company that started selling slippers had ever reached a 6-billion revenue in 10 years — a truly exponential growth, which brings both positive and negative consequences. My job in Lisbon was to lead operations, being responsible for HR, Recruitment, Finance, Employer Branding and Site Management. However, the strategy for the Lisbon office was outlined in Berlin, without the involvement of the local management, which created some cultural friction. The cultural part is fundamental — companies that come from outside have to understand how the local ecosystem works and try to adapt the strategy to this new reality. Zalando never really understood how Portugal worked, and so it was not a successful project.

In general, I am very suspicious of companies that move here with overly ambitious growth targets — Portuguese talent already has a great reputation and is highly valued, which means that there has to be a great effort of retention after the recruitment phase.

Some German companies were curious to understand what had happened with Zalando in order not to make the same mistakes and contacted me to have an informal conversation — obviously without sharing any confidential information. That’s how I met Zoi: from the start, there was a huge empathy with the leadership team of Zoi, a consultancy very focused on industry.

Although Zoi is only 3 years old, it is part of a very solid company — Karcher — which helps a lot in the world of startups. Startups are often not mature enough to face certain situations, not the case with Zoi.

One of my roles at Zoi as Managing Director and Site Manager is to ensure the company’s growth by investing in local talent. By the way, the world is small, and I returned to LACS as a tenant!

BRIDGE IN: What was the reason for Zoi to select Lisbon and, in your opinion as a human resources professional, what are the advantages of having a hub in Portugal?

José — Zoi chose Lisbon because they strongly believe in local talent and in Lisbon’s ability to attract international professionals. Many talented individuals see Lisbon as a city where they can develop their career, and not only because of the sun and the beaches, but because Portugal has become an internationally recognized hub, it is a very safe country and well located between the US and the rest of Europe. Attracting foreign or Portuguese talent that is abroad, also ends up being advantageous at a fiscal level.

And yet, not related to Zoi, I think we still don’t know how to sell the greater Lisbon area well. For example, Lisboa does not promote Cascais, and Cascais does not promote Lisbon. We are talking about locations that are at a distance of 30 km and that do not collaborate. This is just an example.

BRIDGE IN: We have already discussed a little about company culture, so let’s explore further: how is the culture of a company defined and what factors may dilute it? Do you think that outsourcing certain teams could be one of those factors?

Even so, Lisbon continues to attract many foreign companies and the Government, together with Startup Lisboa and Startup Portugal did an excellent job with the creation of support and incentive programs.

José — Even if we don’t have anything against it, we do not work with outsourcing either from the inside out or from the outside in, and of course it makes all the difference at a cultural level. When renting teams back and forth, people end up assimilating neither the culture of the company they are employed in, nor that of the client company.

Zoi invests in its own culture, based on flexibility, that gives us some advantages in terms of attracting top talent. I speak of hybrid work solutions, flexible hours and focus on the health and well-being of our employees. For example, we have a group on Strava where we challenge each other to run and do physical activity. The sense of responsibility that a company gives its employees is very important.

We also always have moments when we are together like our lunches on Friday, or our winter events … in short, many moments when the company invites everyone to socialize.

BRIDGE IN: Zoi’s distributed model is very interesting — you have offices in 3 cities, and still want to open more. You also have experience in a structure such as LACS, made for digital nomads but also offering flexible office solutions. As you know, lately there has been a lot of talk about remote work, and work from home, especially due to the pandemic — what will the future of work be like in your opinion? Will everyone really work from home? Or will having small centers in spaces like LACS become more and more relevant?

Zoi has 3 offices, Stuttgart, Berlin and Lisbon — and soon announcing the opening in other geographies — so it means it is also important to integrate the teams internationally. We have about 95 employees from 19 different nationalities, with varied backgrounds spread across several offices. The pillars of Zoi’s culture are to invest heavily in diversity, ensuring flexibility and well-being for employees.

José — 100% remote is not a solution. At Zoi we bet on a hybrid framework, strongly defending the flexibility and needs of each employee. Of course, this will change the workspaces a lot: spaces like LACS will be more and more successful because having multiple solutions and flexible contracts means being able to adapt to the growth of your clients. Returning to the example of Zalando: they had a wonderful office in Avenida da Liberdade, with a 5-year contract. Hadn’t I found anyone to occupy it, the company would have had to pay a lot of money. This doesn’t happen when you rent an office at LACS.

I think the future of work for most organizations is going to be hybrid. Sharing space also means cementing relationships that go beyond work; working 100% from home means losing a lot of that aspect. There is also another concern for Zoi, whose culture is very focused on the well-being of employees: how can a 100% remote company guarantee people’s comfort? How, for example, will we fairly assess the insurance cover needed for people that work in their homes?

As for our offices, having these geographical dispersion turns out to be interesting because we managed to reach several regions and have access to diverse talent. Furthermore, it is a way for us to reduce risks: if an office in a certain region is not so successful, we know that it is not the only one we have. Imagine if we had opened a single giant office in Lebanon (my deepest sorry for this great people and country), for example. This dispersion for us is a very pragmatic strategy.

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Originally published at on October 8, 2020.

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