When it pays to be deaf

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Listen to your people.

It’s not a radical idea. Perfectly good ‘best practice’, probably in every leadership manual from the last 20 years. But it’s wrong. Or at least it can be if you don’t do it right and doing it right requires more balls than you might think. Let’s dig in.

In the 11 years I was CEO at Reward Gateway I grew the business from five people to 400, from one client to 2,000, from one product to eight and from one pokey little office in Notting Hill to nine across three continents. We started with no VC funding, no fat cat angels – just a handful of people with a few credit cards and an overdraft. We scraped together about £50k to get it going and when I sold it for the second time in 2015, it went for £140 million. Delivering that growth, that level of change, required endless restructuring, endless change, hundreds of organisational dead ends, pivots, upsets and the occasional volte-face. We reinvented the org chart on a sometimes monthly basis, changed job roles, job titles, rotated staff, incentives schemes, performance programmes, created and eliminated bonuses, formed departments – and sometimes disbanded them only months after.

And what I learned during all of it is that, with an open and honest approach to communications and present, kind, visible leadership, you can inflict almost any change on your workforce and they’ll go along with it. Almost any change, that is, except ask them to move their desk or change the office layout.

For nine years, the company’s London HQ was at 90 Westbourne Grove, London, W2. A nice address until you got there and found a B-grade 60’s building with plastic peeling off the windows, toilets that never seemed or smelled clean and a lift that amazed me every year when it passed another safety inspection. We got burgled once and nothing was stolen. It’s one saving grace was it was above a Sainsbury’s Local so it was handy for food, although in time earned the badge ‘the world’s worst Sainsbury’s Local’ and was itself closed for some time due to an infestation of some pest or other.

But when we filled that space to a point of bursting and decided to decamp the sales and service departments to a beautiful new building 10 minutes’ walk down the road, there was an outcry. The client service department – a dedicated, highly pragmatic and professional team – actually produced a spreadsheet containing 35 reasons why it wouldn’t work and shouldn’t happen. At least 34 of these were related to the idea of sharing a room with the sales team.

In that same building, a colleague – Tina – worked in the finance team on the 3rd floor. I saw her one day wearing a jumper, coat, scarf and hat at her desk. ‘Are you alright Tina?’ I asked. ‘Yes, I’m fine,’ she replied. ‘Just cold, very cold.’ ‘But Tina, you’re sitting under the aircon vent, directly under it. Why don’t you move your desk – there’s an empty one just there,’ I replied. Tina looked at me aghast, like I’d really offended her. ‘But this is my desk,’ she said. ‘My desk.’ And then she looked back down and carryied on with her work, content she had put that terrible idea to bed.

There is something so deeply personal about space that it can make us behave in a completely irrational way. When faced with change, we seem to forget everything that’s wrong with the present and view the new with deep suspicion and contempt.

So when it comes to staff consultation, of course we need to do it and of course our offices will be the better for really understanding how people work and what their needs, wants and ideas are. But if you want to create a really special workplace that people will truly love in the future, you’re going to need to lead from the front and take people on a journey that some will find momentarily uncomfortable. In Build it, we call it ‘collaborate with courage’ and what I mean by that is, invest time in listening, communicating, sharing and explaining but then find the courage to paint a bold vision and avoid the deep compromise of the committee. If I hadn’t done that at Reward Gateway, for our own new workspace, we wouldn’t have been largely printer and paper free, we wouldn’t have had gender neutral bathrooms and we would have had a ton of ‘essential’ storage space, stationary cabinets, pedestal units and personal lockers – none of which I believed we actually needed and none of which we eventually provided.

Most of us are highly resistant to change in our physical space but you can build an office of the future now. Just don’t expect everyone to be excited in advance. The real tests of leadership are always when everyone says ‘Go North’ and you know you need to go South. But get workplace right and, from the day your people move in, they’ll forget the past and walk confidently into the future.

Glenn Elliott was CEO of employee engagement specialist Reward Gateway from 2006 to 2017 and now advises businesses on company culture, leadership and growth. He is the author of Build it – The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement (Wiley, 2018).

www.glennelliott.me

www.rebelplaybook.com