Why I’m passionate about building great places to work

Its taken me 24 years of work and two life crises to figure out what I actually want to spend my time doing. During this time I’ve worked for global corporations, charities and small businesses and I’ve been self employed and unemployed. My experience has been a mixture of fun, stress, boredom and frustration. The world is changing, it has become more complex and it seems clear to me that the old ways of organising work are not working. Making business more human has become a bit of a calling for me and I thought in this blog I would share some of the insights I’ve made from my experiences of the world of work.

1. Change is constant but how you experience it is a choice

During my final summer at University the company I was about to start with had been taken over by a global giant. In that first six months I was working with people who were either excited about the new opportunities this would create or were terrified that they would be out of a job. The difference between the two views was driven entirely by how they viewed their world and themselves. There was a five year period in my corporate life when every year there was a re-structure and my job disappeared. The first time this happened I was bereft and went through career counseling and learned to challenge some fears and beliefs. By the fifth time I had taken control of my career and brought about my next role. Doing the ‘inside’ work made a profound difference to how I experienced change.

2. Avoiding tough decisions has long term consequences

In one role I was tasked with creating a step change in perception of a key department, a team made up of a number of individuals who had been in the organization a long time and, it turned out, had developed a very limited skill set. Instead of being challenged and coached they had been promoted or palmed off to other departments when given the change. This has been going on for so long that eventually the skill gap was too great to close. Throughout this whole time those individuals worked in a constant state of fear worrying about when their time was up. Colleagues resented them for being ‘useless’ and the organization developed a culture for gossip, not taking risks and not being meritocratic. Avoiding tough decisions because they may be ‘wrong’ is symptomatic of a culture in which failure is seen as weak and someone must be blamed. This stifles creativity and innovation, an increasingly critical capability in the current business world.

3. Great things happen when people feel aligned to a purpose

Much of my time and energy in getting things done in large organisations is spent on persuading people to do their job or at least getting out of the way. In many instances it felt like some colleagues were working for competitors such was the scale of obstruction or indifference. However, when an entire team is aligned behind a clearly articulated goal then great things happen. Suddenly everyone pulls in the same direction, cooperation happens,’ you succeed, I succeed’ thinking develops and things move surprising quickly. I’ve experienced this several times and the difference in energy and enjoyment at work is extraordinary. I think organisations spend too little time co-creating and articulating a vision and purpose and too much time being busy and inefficient. Less in this instance could end up being more.

4. Actions speak louder than words

I’ve worked with some inspiring people and some lemons and without exception the good ones talk less and do more. I remember one senior manager who said his door was always open and then scowled whenever approached for a chat. I was involved in a significant communications piece around brand values, one of which was trust. I was working on a revenue project at the time and one of the proposals was to seek ways to increase income by encouraging customers to incur penalty fees. When it was suggested that this might impact on customer trust, the objection was ignored because the numbers stacked up. The short term objective was achieved but the long term result was that the entire branding piece became meaningless, or to quote an old school banker ‘weasle words’.

5. Bring yourself to work.

In my early working life I was not ‘out’ at work and on a Monday morning it was usual to share what you were up to at the weekend. I was in my early 20’s so my weekends involved snogging men and dancing my butt off in some London club but I was not quite ready to share this aspect of myself, so I lied. It became quite stressful to present an image of someone other than who I was and I was very glad a couple of years later to be myself. The difference in energy and congruence was stark as I had more time to focus on the job rather than the mask. Throughout my time working for big companies I always felt I had to perform to an extent, be the leader boss, not show vulnerability and weakness, feeling pressure to know the answers. It was a complete illusion and it was not until I left to work for much smaller organisations that I felt able to show these other aspects of me. Showing up and being who you are makes the whole process of work less stressful and also more productive. Wearing masks is extremely tiring and damaging and I’m sure contributes to the high sickness and absentee rates that large companies experience.

6. Learn to let go

In a low trust culture lots of activity is dedicated to monitoring and controlling what is going on. I’ve worked on projects in which the project administration workload was greater than doing the actual project. Managers would demand progress updates so that when asked at their senior meetings would be able to answer questions and not look foolish. Valuable time would be spent briefing them so they could get decisions made, time which could have been spent actually delivering something. In extremis this becomes to micro managing. I remember working in a small business in which the owner wanted to make every decision and detail such that you couldn’t even buy a biro without clearance. This same person then complained that he ‘had to do everything around here’, he hadn’t connected his experience with his behaviour. Letting go is hard, trusting in hard and to do so requires us to develop a deeper sense of self belief that won’t be threatened by losing control. With greater trust cultures there is less need for layers and managers, leaving more room for doers. The issue of trust and control is one of the deepest issues facing organizational cultures today and is a vital piece of ‘inside’ work we all have to face.