It can be easy to add – but is often more meaningful to take away. I believe that building a successful business is similar.
Eight years ago I had the opportunity to start a company from scratch. I had spent the previous 18 years working at some big organisations. With a blank piece of paper, no shareholders, and the luxury of gardening leave from my previous employer, I had the time to think about what a modern business should feel like.
I wanted to create a truly different culture that treated people as individuals, allowed them to realise their own personal potential and to grow in the direction they (not the organisation) chose.
And it started with taking things away.
First to go was job titles. There is absolutely nothing good to say about job titles. They are highly political, horribly corporate and I have yet to meet anyone with a good one. People don’t need titles to understand what one another’s jobs are. Actors don’t progress from “drama school graduate” to “actor” to “senior actor” all the way to “A-List”. They all have the same job title despite different skills, experience levels and earning potential. So at our company we do the same – we all just get on with our respective day jobs, have lots of respect for each other professionally, but there are no job titles and we call ourselves whatever we feel like.
The second piece of corporate structure to go was the hierarchy. It was replaced with a flat structure. This is a structure where everyone’s voice has equal merit, and everyone is encouraged to contribute to the overall success of the company. Via a matrix of project teams, everyone works across different disciplines and we all help to deliver the targets. So much so that our profit share scheme is split equally amongst everyone in the company.
Imagine what would happen if a company said to all of its staff “don’t worry about filling in a holiday form. We trust you to take as much holiday as you need, and not to let your team down by taking too much. So much so that we won’t bother to count your days off”. That’s what we have done for the last eight years. I’d say most people take about 4 or 5 weeks off. Sometimes a bit longer if their time off includes a honeymoon, or a big trip. Sometimes it’s a bit less if they are saving for a new house and choose not to take expensive holidays. But on average about 4 or 5 weeks – in other words exactly the same amount as if we were counting, filling in forms and imposing rules. And absenteeism in our organization is incredibly low. Why would you take a sickie if you are allowed to take an extra day’s holiday?
Imagine a company that ignored accepted wisdom about corporate confidentiality and instead was completely open. A company that shared the business plan with everyone, told everyone about profits targets, the new business pipeline and the customer feedback. Surely that company would be at risk of trade secrets leaking out into the industry? Well again not in our experience. We have done exactly that for eight years and to this day nobody has shared any confidential information outside the organisation. People like to be trusted with information – it creates a sense of shared purpose and gives us the opportunity to celebrate successes.
All of these policies (or in fact non-policies) sound risky but the only risk is in recruiting the wrong person. Our culture relies on people who are personally motivated to do a great job for our clients and who also want the company to succeed. We have deliberately recruited people who want to grow as individuals rather than those who enjoy the shackles of a corporate life. It would be easy for the wrong person to take advantage of the culture we have created. But put the right people into a culture like this and it’s a winning combination – for both the company and the individual and for the work we do for clients.
Jenny Biggam is co-founder of independent media agency the7stars, just voted one of the Sunday Times top three best small companies to work for.
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