Updated: Apr 12
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"This is the story of the inspiring power of rebellion. You don’t have to be a CEO to change working methods. Nor do you need the approval of the HR department.” - Joost Minnaar & Pimm De Morree
During my career in retail management and then HR management, I always had a sense there was a better way of leading organisations than the traditional hierarchical, top-down decision-making models the organisations I worked for observed. I hated processes that demonstrated a lack of trust in employees, such as not sharing succession data and financial performance, knowing instinctively that transparency would be a much better approach.
I worked hard at introducing efficiencies and reducing bureaucracy, where and when I could, but it was often like pushing water uphill when trying to get agreement from senior teams. One of the key factors in my decision to leave industry was the amount of time the HR team I was working with spent in the development and continuous improvement of processes that few people used and even fewer cared about.
Another factor in my decision to change careers, I feel too much of HRs time is wasted on dealing with, what I call, ‘The Dickheads’ and not enough time in developing those who are making a valuable contribution. It feels like HR people spend 80% of their time dealing with the 3% of employees that make up ‘The Dickheads’ and only 20% (or less in some cases) of time on strategic issues that contribute to competitive advantage.
When I first started teaching, I found myself questioning my HR professional students studying for the CIPD qualification about this issue, but felt there was little appetite to challenge the status quo. Of course, we need an Employee Handbook, a holiday policy and rules around expenses would be the response to my questions.
Quite early on in my academic career, I came across an interesting HBR article, entitled ‘How Netflix Reinvented HR’ and upon reading it felt that my itch had finally been scratched. There is a different way and successful organisations are adopting simplified approaches that demonstrate trust in their people.
Key points of “Corporate Rebels: Make Work More Fun.”
The book is structured around "8 trends". Each chapter introduces the reader to organisational examples of how these trends are embedded in unique ways into the company cultures. Here I have selected some of my highlights, though it was difficult as I’ve never made so many notes in a book.
FROM PROFIT to PURPOSE & VALUES: For me, the key message of this chapter is embodied in this quote from page 40:
“Revenue for a company is like oxygen for a human: necessary to stay alive, but not the reason for living.”
For companies such as Patagonia (see Let My People Go Surfing), Toni’s Chocolony, Zappos and Spotify, profit is the means to the end – profit funds purpose.
Evidence is introduced that higher purpose is linked to:
Better financial results
Improved staff motivation
Improved staff involvement
10 x better performance
Consumers willing to pay more for products
FROM HIERARCHICAL PYRAMIDS to NETWORK OF TEAMS: “It is painfully obvious; the system in which many people still work was created for a stable, slow and predictable world that no longer exists” (p.60) and companies like manufacturing giant Haier, based in China are waking up to this and making the changes required to thrive in the more complex world in which we now exist. Gary Hamel, author of What Matters Now, estimates bureaucracy is increasing cost by $3 trillion a year, whilst 92% of CEOs worry about their organisational structure and 86% don’t know what to do about it. $213 billion of lost productivity can be equated to bad meetings alone. Organisations such as Haier and the European banking giant Handelsbanken base their success on adopting a network of teams structure, in which the organisation is broken down into thousands of self-managing micro-organisations. Other organisations adopting this approach include Nearsoft (software developers), Smarkets (betting exchange) and Dutch Buurtzorg (community nursing).
FROM DIRECTIVE to SUPPORTIVE LEADERSHIP: If you want to move from the command and control approach most suited to the industrial era, towards more supportive leadership first beware of the HIPPOs (Highest Paid Persons Opinions). Next, destroy the ivory tower; successful companies are getting rid of status symbols, such as plush offices and designated parking to create more inclusive environments. Other mechanisms include evaluating upwards and even leadership elections, both of which can help to avoid the Peter Principle.
At Zingerman’s, the coffee company, the founder walks the restaurant floor serving water to customers and attends all staff inductions; at UKTV, CEO Darren Childs holds weekly Town Hall meetings and managers at the broadcasting network are rated openly by their employees.
FROM PREDICT & PLAN to EXPERIMENT AND ADAPT: Ford Motor Company estimated that annual planning activities cost the business around $1.2 billion per year, which seems pretty ridiculous in a world where we can no longer predict with any certainty what the next calendar year will bring. Experimentation is the key to innovation, not prediction and thus requires a culture in which making mistakes is accepted. At Spotify, they ‘aim to make mistakes faster than anyone else’ and to facilitate this they have ‘fail walls’ and write blogs where they share the learnings of their failures.
FROM RULES AND CONTROL to FREEDOM & TRUST:
“…the glue here is trust, and as a leader, you must earn it. The more you give the more you get.” – Frank van Massehore, Belgian Ministry of Social Security.
Why is our faith in others so low? - a question I often ask myself and others. Why do we need so many rules and policies? Is writing policy manuals that no-one will read the best use of time? It seems we are apt to feel we have to impose these strict rules on everyone because of the failings of the few (the aforementioned dickheads), which make up only 3% of the workforce.
Companies including Netflix and The Belgian Ministry of Social Security are adopting a different approach, stripping away rules in favour of flexibility and openness.
FROM CENTRALISED AUTHORITY to DISTRIBUTED AUTHORITY: It was no surprise to me that David Marquet makes an appearance in this chapter, it resonates with the key messages from his latest book, Leadership is Language, which I reviewed last month. By pushing authority downwards and listening to the wisdom of the crowd you can melt the ‘iceberg of ignorance’.
FROM SECRET to RADICAL TRANSPARENCY:
“Nobody can expect anyone to be fully involved if they do not have access to all of the information.” – Ricardo Semler, Semco.
The majority of the chapter is devoted to the transformation story of Semco, a traditional autocratically styled company, into one democratically managed by its employees. One of the key stages of the transformation was the dissemination of information. Openness and honesty were considered to be vital, even when the news was bad and weekly meetings were held where no subject was taboo. But the openness didn’t stop there, managers were reviewed by employees and salaries are known to all.
FROM JOB DESCRIPTIONS to TALENTS & MASTERY: I recently held a debate in one of my classes, the topic – ‘Who needs a job description anyway?’ The ‘ayes’ won, most could not imagine a workplace in which job descriptions did not exist. But they do exist. Buurtzorg (a healthcare company) and Nearsoft are examples of companies working without job descriptions and reaping the rewards of increased motivation and commitment.
The book ends with a call to action for a workplace revolution. “You will never influence the world by trying to be just like it.” My advice, rebel and be the change, don’t wait for someone else to do it.
The 8 trends described above resonate with what we are helping people achieve at The Good Life + work Project.
Get in touch to find out how we can help you join the rebels.
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