This is what the UK’s best companies for leadership and culture are prioritising right now
A quarter of our top 20 organisations for leadership and culture explicitly advocate giving staff autonomy. And 11 prioritise flat structures. The most radical example is Equal Experts, a ‘self-governing organisation’ in the making, where an ‘advice process’ means employees’ peers authorise decisions, from renting new office space to attempting to launch a drone into space. “The process saves time and helps to create a culture of transparency and openness,” CEO Thomas Granier told us. At Badoo, constant oversight of projects is eschewed in favour of a series of ‘check-in points’ to boost efficiency; at VistaBee work is delegated on demand from a task-management system. At Facebook, meanwhile, managers are self-selected: “It allows people to do work they enjoy, be in a role that plays to their strengths and make a personal impact,” says international director of HR Fiona Mullan.
Autonomy works best in a flat organisational structure. In the words of First Utility’s chief people officer, John Wrighthouse: “A flat structure has benefits for productivity because it creates a sense of intimacy, promotes the building of effective working relationships and places real value on individual contributions.”
2. … or MICROMANAGEMENT
Don’t shy away from visible management. Some of our top 20, such as growing consultancy Baringa Partners, are busy putting manager-to-staff ratios in place, convinced that trust is fostered by proximity. Rentokil Initial sends its leadership teams on the road for six months a year to support frontline staff, while MediaMath gives two managers responsibility for each individual team member, one to provide guidance on specific skills, and one to provide guidance on projects.
“As leaders we don’t have all of the answers,” says MediaMath’s HR director, Lone Jensen. “The structure can sometimes slow down decision-making, but we believe collaboration enables us to create better outcomes for our people and clients.”
The flipside of such an attentive strategy is cost. Rentokil Initial’s managing director, Phill Wood, admitted that delegating responsibility to local managers could improve productivity and profit but told us that the way local managers are currently supported enables them to be “more customer-responsive”.
3. A WEEKLY (OR DAILY) APPRAISAL
The annual review is not the box-ticking exercise it once was. When it comes to performance management, highly rated leaders are checking in with their subordinates with ever-greater frequency to promote both personal – and business – growth. At First Utility, managers single out examples of ‘reliable, engaging, pioneering and straightforward’ behaviour on internal channels several times a day to reinforce the company’s values. “Who doesn’t want a bit of praise and recognition?” Wrighthouse told us.
Elsewhere, daily progress meetings are used to troubleshoot staff performance at Northern Gas and Power. Too much? At Cloudreach, weekly 30-minute sit-downs with line managers are used to monitor KPIs and personal development. “It feeds into ‘promoting personal growth’ and helps us improve what we provide to customers,” explains global head of people operations Estelle Roux.
4. THE CULTURE INTERVIEW
To preserve an award-winning culture, you need to hire the right people. “Everything starts with the right values,” according to Lookers’ CEO, Andy Bruce. “Cultural tone is part of vision and strategy.” For this reason, Skyscanner and Cloudreach also host dedicated cultural-fit interviews as part of their recruitment processes – right down to asking applicants about their favourite foods and hobbies.
If that’s too niche, it may pay to theme competency questions around your organisation’s values, as happens at HomeServe UK. “Since introducing our values and behaviours-led recruitment assessment centres, we’ve seen an increase in the number of people passing the three-week induction review, and also in those achieving an ‘outstanding’ performance rating during their first week,” says CEO Martin Bennett. Don’t be afraid to fully commit: “We hire people on behaviours first and technical skills second,” says Chloe Marsh, head of engagement and communications at RHP.
5. SQUADS AND TRIBES
'Squads and tribes’ is a team structure that the likes of Skyscanner and Auto Trader swear by. It breeds a “start-up mentality”, according to Christos Tsaprounis, co-head of people and culture at Auto Trader. Small ‘squads’ of people work individually on a facet of a business (such as its website’s search function). They are empowered to make their own decisions in the interests of speed and innovation, which means mistakes are tolerated by managers. “There’s a culture of ‘failing forward’ – embracing failure and learning from it,” says Ruth Chandler, chief people officer at Skyscanner. Squads then belong to a tribe, which groups together similar teams under an umbrella term such as ‘mobile web design’ and aims to inspire new ideas.
Other organisations have embraced the dynamic spirit of bringing similar teams together. Cloudreach hosts ‘hackathons’ and ‘skunkworks’ where employees can work outside of their direct teams and day jobs to generate ideas with others. “We challenge each other in a good way, and through diversity learn to see other perspectives and ways of doing things,” explains Roux.
If you want to develop great leaders, start early. In line with its value ‘Focus on impact’, interns at Facebook are given work that full-time employees would do: they are publishing code by the end of their first week, and invited to quiz founder Mark Zuckerberg at weekly Q&As. The reason? It makes everyone invest in company culture. “Everyone at Facebook is empowered to take responsibility, and carry our culture forward, regardless of level,” says Mullan.
Elsewhere, we know that the average age of the workforce at Epos Now is just 23. Young people are recruited based on attitude, and offered professional development. This helps the company stay future-focused – something that it also encourages through succession planning. “We’re always looking to develop the board members of the future,” says founder and CEO Jacyn Heavens. He advises managers who are looking to nurture young talent to reward success: “It’s essential to motivating a young workforce and we do this in a number of ways, from providing lunches and financial rewards to throwing huge quarterly celebrations.”
“We pride ourselves on having the right people in managerial roles helping to develop the next generation of talent,” says Heidi Pitt-Cramman, recruitment manager at Fourth.
7. … or EXPERIENCE
Internal progression is still a big win. Recruiting managers internally creates a culture of trust, as leaders have a proven track record. All of Northern Gas and Power’s management team are recruited from a pool of energy consultants; at Peninsula, 95 per cent of senior managers have been promoted internally. There are two benefits. Firstly, employees are motivated. “Employees who are looking to progress can look up to those who are more senior and gain valuable knowledge and experience, while being mentored by someone who was once in their position,” says Peninsula managing director Peter Done. Secondly, leaders understand the business and what it needs to do well. “Our senior managers and directors who’ve developed within the business have grown and adapted as the market and economy has changed,” Done adds. To support promotion prospects, training is a must. It appears in different guises among our top 20, from mentoring to conflict-resolution classes to CMI-accredited courses.
8. ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS
High-performing cultures prioritise communication; when it comes to dispersed workforces, embracing online social networks is essential. Equal Experts calls instant messaging app Slack “a major facilitator of company culture”, given that its teams are based around the world and on-site with clients. It uses the platform to “share expertise”. Managers at HomeServe UK also use a social network to engage their teams, opting for Yammer, which groups messages into thread-based themes for efficiency. Rentokil Initial benefits from the ability to share news updates with staff on the road via Google+, while Facebook believes its own platform has the advantage of providing accurate and real-time feedback on the company culture and leadership, unlike seasonal surveys. Pick wisely.
9. EMPLOYEE SURVEYS
A management review works both ways. One of the most common initiatives among our top 20 organisations is a staff survey that invites feedback on leadership and culture. To encourage honesty from employees, most surveys are completed anonymously. Rentokil Initial brings in an external company to undertake its research, while Thomas International uses its own Engage software tool to measure seven aspects of workplace engagement. Managers should respond to the data: every 18 months Rentokil Initial publishes a ‘Your Voice Counts’ agenda, which commits business leaders to actions based on responses to its survey (more than 95% of employees take part in the survey). Frequency may also be a factor in generating participation. Baringa Partners run surveys up to twice a year: its response rate is 88%.
‘Leadership and Culture at Work: the CMI/Glassdoor Top 20’ is a systematic attempt to showcase positive management practices at UK organisations. The full feature, including details of working styles at individual companies, is available in the autumn edition of Professional Manager, available now