In our podcast series ‘Leading with Impact’, Thrive’s CEO, founder, and ‘coach to the coaches’ Pam Bateson speaks to a variety of expert guests, discussing leadership insight, the impact of the lockdown, the resulting challenges companies may face as we ease back into ‘the new normal’, and ways to tackle them.
The very first episode in the series sees Pam joined by Tim Bittleston, chairman of BGF – a growth funding investment company that inspires business leaders and innovators to build strong, sustainable businesses. What followed was a fascinating discussion about a significant transfer of power from the employer to the employee, and how to ensure great leadership in a world where business practices have faced an unprecedented upheaval in the past few years.
A power shift: from employer to employee
“The employee rules the roost – companies that recognise that will win the day”
Tim shared his insight on how to traverse new territory in which the employee now holds a lot of power. For most, there is no going back from home working. It has had a huge impact in terms of flexibility, convenience, and work/life balance. Most of all, people have been able to use the time they would have spent commuting to maximise their productivity, whether that’s being present at home, or at work, making the daily commute feel like a barrier. While staff will still benefit from an anchor, he suggests that this may not be the traditional office building as it was pre-2020 – instead he proposes that managers go to where their staff are based, stationing themselves in areas within easy reach of staff for a few days at a time.
He also noted the huge economic shift; rampant inflation and a possible recession on the way, manpower and materials in short supply, both of which are only going to increase. Whatever your business model was, it will now be completely different, and Tim, having worked with 16 organisations over the course of his career, can’t think of any business that isn’t having to rethink how to operate.
Training is crucial for a great company culture
During the pandemic, Tim visited a site of the Swedish homeware giant IKEA who had been forced to close their stores due to the national lockdown and closure of ‘non-essential’ businesses. He watched an install team on site through the night – all of them were encouraged to engage in meaningful training and qualifications outside of work while furloughed. IKEA’s focus was on staff development, rather than staff retention, and they achieved this by recognising the transient nature of a lot of their staff. It also allowed them to spot ‘the cream of the crop’, that could be potential management material in the long term. This approach, Tim feels, is the key to building a fantastic culture.
Tim shared the most effective thing he has ever learnt from going into new businesses, that is especially applicable to existing businesses coming out of lockdown; Plot out your organisation chart, and talk to everybody – start from the bottom, find out who talks to who, and which teams they work with. Isolated groups and individuals will appear. Ask them, and yourself, why they are isolated. The solution could be as simple as moving the furniture. People need to feel valued, included and important. Ultimately, even the tea lady is an important conduit of workplace culture in your organisation. Recognise these ‘culture owners’ – people that contribute to your company’s ethos and day-to-day energy, no matter how small their role.
Turning to the past for your future
“Sometimes the best way to plan for the future is to look at the past”
Tim feels that training should be an absolutely essential part of everyone’s introduction to the company. He singles out a ‘join for life’ philosophy so brilliantly executed by Marks & Spencer and John Lewis as best in class examples – all employees get the same training when they join, and this training focused as much on the values and ethos of the company as it did the requirements of the position.
When budgets are tight, training is often the first thing to be scrapped, but Tim warns against this, and has seen first-hand what the results can be when it happens. An expectation that people will arrive at your company ‘pre-trained’ is a catch-all solution, which can alienate new employees, particularly with remote onboarding. The risk here is that you make them feel as though they could be working anywhere, which in turn leads to a lesser feeling of loyalty. It is crucial to make people on every level feel as though they are involved with the bigger picture, and connected to your company.
The importance of being brutal
Skillsets of entrepreneurs in early stages of business are hugely varied, but are often hyper-focussed on their own area of expertise. When it comes to management of a company on a bigger scale, Tim thinks they can guarantee themselves a fall if they are making decisions without consulting other members of the team. Most entrepreneurs are highly driven people, and have been found to have narcissistic tendencies, but they can avoid disaster by undertaking and delivering robust training courses on what they want their company to achieve.
Something Tim finds regularly when speaking to early stage investment businesses is that they got to where they are with the same small team. The biggest problem he sees is that it is highly likely that the people who got you to this stage, won’t be the right people to get you to the next. At the point of next steps in funding, he advises that you take a hard look at yourself, and your people, and be brutal. It is essential to move quickly and refresh the team. Businesses need to be right for their people, but your people also need to be right for your business.
Inclusion in a scattered organisation
“That is to me, the essence of allowing people to work remotely without check ins feeling ‘tick box-y’”
The discussion ended with a piece of advice that Tim received very early on in his career, that he has carried with him ever since, and strongly recommends to businesses negotiating their emergence from lockdown. It’s astonishingly simple. Check in with your staff 3 times a day. In the morning, ask them what they’re planning to do today. Early afternoon, catch up with them to see how that’s going. And then at the end of the day, find out how it went.
Build a culture where supervisors and managers have ‘check-ins’ built into the fabric of their role. It’s all about connection. Chat with your sales people, whether it’s on Zoom or at their desks. Each of these needs only take a few minutes, but it’s the friendliest, most cooperative, most collaborative way to motivate that individual and remind them why they’re there.