• Andy Goram

How To Scale With Humanity

The world of scaling up a business can be a frenetic, chaotic, crazy and rewarding experience at the best of times. During all the hurly-burly and constant change, hard-wiring your ideal enabling culture into the embryonic fabric of your business and creating an environment where employees are engaged and feel like they are thriving, can get left until later. If it's left too late, it can create a mountain of issues that's hard work to climb eventually, such as talent loss, constant recruitment, poor levels of employee engagement and revenue and profit dilution. But it doesn't have to be that way.


In episode 46 of the Sticky From The Inside Podcast, host Andy Goram, from the employee engagement and workplace culture consultancy, Bizjuicer, talks to Tom Holliss, Chief People Officer of Zappi. Tom talks about the lessons they've learned during their scaling-up activities, and honestly shares their successes and mistakes, including the time they tried self-set salaries! But all the way through their journey they've put respect, trust and treating their people like adults at the very heart of the organisation.


Below is a full transcript of the conversation, or you can listen to the episode here.


Two men discussing scaling up a business with humanity
Tom Holliss (left) and Andy Goram (right) discuss how to successfully scale-up with humanity

00:00:10 Andy Goram

Hello, and welcome to sticky from the inside. The Employee Engagement podcast that looks at how to build stickier competition-smashing, consistently successful organisations from the inside out. I'm your host Andy Goram and I'm on a mission to help more businesses turn their lights on behind the eyes of their employees, light the fires within them and create tons more success for everyone.

This podcast is for all those who believe that's something worth going after and would like a little help and guidance in achieving that. Each episode we dive into the topics that can help create what I call stickier businesses, the sort of businesses where people thrive and love to work and where more customers stay with you and recommend you to others because they love what you do and why you do it.


So, if you want to take the tricky out of being sticky, listen on.


00:01:10 Andy Goram

Now striking out on my own as an engagement and culture consultant, and hosting this podcast has, I think, made me a little braver in going after things I think are important. Now, today's podcast guest, I think, is a fine example of that. I saw a post from him on LinkedIn, that resonated with me on the topic of wellbeing and switching from an unlimited holiday policy to a minimum holiday rule.


Now what struck me first, was it was really nice to see someone talking about what they've actually done and the effect it was having. The piece struck me as something that was more than just a policy and benefit statement, and that it had a genuine caring soul behind it. What then piqued my interest further, was the way in which my guest responded to the queries, including some from those people who clearly hadn't read the post properly, or just trolling, or trying to score some sort of imaginary points. It said to me that there was more behind what they were doing at this company than the headline of the piece.

There are a lot of people who talk about having a focus on people, engagement, and culture. But I think the thing that differentiates the best is a genuine commitment to doing these things and a strong belief that doing the right thing is not just good for the headlines, it's good for business.


So today I'm speaking with Tom Holliss, who's the Chief People Officer at Zappi, which started life as a tech start-up eight years ago and it's continuing its story of rapid growth, as it provides a platform to help businesses and marketers test and put out better, more relevant content to its customers. Their growth path has been exciting and challenging, but people have always been at the heart of it, and Tom is going to share with us the stories of success and failure the company’s had so far, and how it plans to continue its people focus as it grows and grows.


Welcome to the show, Tom!


00:03:06 Tom Holliss

Thanks, Andy, great to be here.

00:03:08 Andy Goram

Hey, really nice to have you here, my friend. Your story on LinkedIn really struck a chord with me, but before we get into all of that, do us a favour, mate. Will you just give us a better introduction to you and what you do and what Zappi is all about?

00:03:21 Tom Holliss

Yeah, absolutely. So, as you said, I'm Chief People Officer at Zappi. I've been working in the HR space for three or four years, and before that was actually working in product. So, the early versions of the Zappi platform, I product managed, built the website a few different apps that we use. And I was always kind of interested in team culture and you know, how can we build a kind of really people centric, compassionate place to work as we scale, right? And so, I was always getting myself involved in different things, whether that was, I don’t know, running focus groups, whether it was coaching, or running surveys or sort things. Trying to understand different experiences and really understand what made people tick. And eventually we got to about 150 people. We didn't have any HR folks at that point. And we sort of made that decision consciously. Because we felt like actually, you know, we're just doing really good work and we felt like up to that point it wasn't something that we necessarily needed.

We got this point where we were like,

We really need someone thinking full-time about the end-to-end employee experience.”

And I would like get really involved in a project and then I have to dive back into some delivery, so it was a kind of natural sidestep from a lot of that team coaching, Agile coaching stuff that I was doing, to actually say, you know, let's think about employee experience, and actually,

Can we apply some of those product development principles and ways of thinking to how we think about people and culture?”

And so that's a bit about me. Before then, I was a social researcher and did a few different things. I've always been quite interested in like what is it that makes people tick.


00:04:51 Andy Goram

Yeah, yeah!


00:04:52 Tom Holliss

And as for Zappi, so we're like you said, we're about 8 or 9 years old. We've built a platform that allows marketers, creators, insights professionals who are coming up with new product ideas, ad campaigns, you know, launching brands in new markets, all of that sort of thing, they can use our platform to gather data about it. And we've automated the process of how we capture consumer feedback and other data streams, and then how we aggregate that data and help our creators to derive meaning from it. So, all of that, programmatically. So, it's a kind of data collection, visualization, generating insight platform, effectively.


00:05:32 Andy Goram

Yeah, I mean and that is for marketers now, meat and drink, isn't it? If you don't have all that data kind of helping you, educate your decisions, what are you doing? Back in my day we used this thing called “gut” which yeah, I was reliable on occasions, but let's be honest, it didn't always help us. And yeah, that moving into the whole world of data for marketers was a huge, huge change when I sort of first started in marketing, but hugely beneficial.

I just want to pick up on that post and if I'm clever and techie enough talking to a techie kind of guy, to drop that link to that post in the show notes at the end people can kind of see where we came from. But where did that post come from and what was the overall reaction like?


00:06:18 Tom Holliss

Yeah, definitely. So, look, we've always taken this perspective of, if you really trust people, yeah. If you really trust people, you just assume that people assume good intent, that people are there to do their best work, you sort of don't need to put in lots of processes and policies and things. You need, you need enough, so that people, you know, are able to be effective and we can, you know, need a bit more as you grow, and all these sorts of things. But there are some areas where if you really trust people, you can just give them a guiding principle and let them get on with it. And we've always taken that approach. And one of those areas is on, you know, time off.

So, from when we started, when we were, you know, a couple of people around the shared office desk we also said,

Right, we're not going to have a like a holiday policy in terms of counting the days that we take or anything like that. So, take whatever time you need to just get the job done right. We trust you to get the job done. Take some time, just chat to the people around you. Chat to the people in your team, make sure that everyone can cover and all of that sort of stuff.”

And as we grew that served us really well, and one of the things that you consistently hear is that people love that flexibility. And actually, I think it, you know, the flexibility is one thing, I think it has huge impacts and all kinds of different things. And increasingly, now, people are realising you know, from a diversity perspective how important that is. That you can design your experience of work. When you work, how you work, where you work. Obviously, everyone's thinking about it a lot more since post COVID, but we got to this point, where you know several years in, we were looking at it and saying, “This has worked for us up until now. It works really well for some people.”

I was looking at the data, and what I really saw was that so we had this unlimited policy, holiday policy. Take as much time as you need. I was looking at the data and it’s basically like a bell curve. Most people are taking the statutory amount for their region. There's a small group of people who are taking a fair bit more, and there's this group of people who are taking a fair bit less. And I was worried about those people taking fair bit less. Because our intention with this approach is people are well rested, when they're at work, you know, they're able to bring their whole selves. They're able to do their best work. And we make use of it. And there's a small group that weren't. So, what we did, is we looked at it and said,

OK, well if this is gonna be the case, this isn't working for us. This isn't achieving what we set out to do.”

So, the evolution of that was to say, “Let's switch to a minimum. Let's set it above statutory for the UK.” So, when you think actually, that a third of our staff are in the US. That's a lot more generous, than most U.S. companies. Let’s set it just above UK statutory, and we have some like, mental health days and things as well, where everyone takes the day off which would be brilliant as well, and then, let's just leave it open-ended, you know. And that's the kind of evolution of the policies. And we really wanted to just kind of keep... I think this goes to the core of how we try to work. And to go back to what we're talking about around product, is set a vision of what we're trying to achieve, and then just iterate, keep looking at the data and iterating, and think “How can we change or evolve this, so it better meets where we're trying to go?” And so really that's the core of where that came from.


And you know, I had a bit of feedback from a few candidates who came in and they said, “You really didn't do a very good job of selling what it was going to be like to work here, in the interview process.” So to just be really honest, do you know what, I'm gonna start talking about this stuff a little bit more and see where it goes. And it's been brilliant actually, because you know, I've had lots of really great conversations off the back of it. I've met lots of great people. I've learned a lot, actually, from what other people are doing as well. So, it was five minutes very well spent on a Friday evening, with a beer at the end of the day, just putting it up on LinkedIn.


00:09:51 Andy Goram

Often those are the ways that it works, right?


I think the interesting thing for me, was it definitely felt like a genuine thing, which I really want to get get into. But I would like to say I was surprised at some of the daft comments that also came on the back of your post. It just felt a bit LinkedIn-ish of people going, “Well, we've always had an unlimited holiday..., or, that's rubbish! What a load of bunkum that is!” And it just never fails to surprise me the the Wallies that end up chiming in on this stuff for no real point. There’s no real point to what they're saying, other than, “You're wrong and I'm right. Get with me.”

00:10:29 Tom Holliss

It’s just part of it. And actually, I know what you're saying, but I also think there is a level of healthy skepticism. And I think if you're putting yourself out there to say, “Hey, we're doing something different, and you know, we're trying to do something progressive”, actually a little bi of you know, people holding you to account and saying like, “Well, isn't that just... how is this different from just the normal or whatever?” like engaging in that conversation is actually...at first I was a bit like “Oh! OK.”, you know, I don't use social media. I opted out a few years ago specifically because I just thought actually, “You know what? There's other stuff I want to focus on in my life.” So, LinkedIn is the only one that I use it for work point of view. So, I was like, “Oh God! OK, let's see where this goes.” But you know, it is what it is. And I think one of the things that I always try to hold really dear about Zappi and the way that we work, is that we’re not perfect, but we are honest. And we don't mind being held to account. And I know I’ll apply that to our staff team and if I'm going to put something out there as well, I'm happy for people to hold me to account on that as well.

00:11:32 Andy Goram

No, look, and that's a very grown-up perspective on life. I'm far more reactive into things. I just thought people were being daft.

But right, let's get into what you've been doing, 'cause it's really refreshing to speak to people, who are on the front line, actually making this sort of stuff work. On the podcast we’ve talked to lots of people who consult on this stuff ,or experts who give advice and all that kind of stuff, but it's always a joy to talk to people who are actually making it happen. I think what's interesting for me, personally, is I've got someone with me today who isn't traditionally having an HR background. Has come from product and we're going to talk about, I'm sure, the influence around how products come to market and the attitude and processes that you use in that area and how you've applied that to the people and culture stuff. And from my perspective as an old, ex-brand marketing guy, who now works in an area, let's be fair, that is traditionally handed over to HR; that culture, people thing, that's HR’s job. And having a different perspective. And I think it's the different perspectives that come into the mix that are interesting, right? I'm not saying you, or I, know any better than a traditional HR professional, but I think the different perspectives all come and you can kind of move forward in that perspective.


So, normally when I've talked to guys from rapid growth start-ups, I mean, traditionally they're a pretty frenetic, exciting, slightly chaotic world, where there's a Founder at the centre, going,

This is my vision!” This is where we’re going. Bash, bash, bash.”

And from my experience, culture and people usually take one of two forms. One, it's absolutely the b-all and end-all about it, and that's what we're going to build something around. Or secondly, “Yeah, we'll hardwire this culture stuff later on when we get to a certain size.” Now it seems to me from the outside, that it was always at the core of the Zappi thought. Is that true and how’s that manifested itself?

00:13:40 Tom Holliss

Yeah, absolutely, and I think like you say, it's a lot about the Founders, actually. And our Founders, our CEO, Chief Technology Officer, a few of the other kind of core founders, always really prioritised culture. And because I’ve been there from the start as well, it's something that we've always worked on together. And you know, there's been a number of different, I would say over the years, sort of very influential ideas, or books, or things like that, that we've read, brought into the organisation and then have folded into our culture. So, I would say that there's actually very little that we're doing that's completely unique. And we always say like, “We stand on the shoulders of Giants”, you know? We'd like... We try to take on as many different ideas and just keep evolving, based on whatever the context is at the time. But yeah, absolutely, I’d say, like really kind of having the support of the founders.

To me, there's two core organizing principles, and other people in my organisation would probably say something different about these two, but the first is Trust

00:14:41 Andy Goram

Yeah.


00:14:42 Tom Holliss

And the 2nd is compassion.


00:14:44 Andy Goram

Right.

00:14:45 Tom Holliss

And I think, actually, if you're holding those two spaces, everything else flows from that. And I think that's what our founders have done really well, and then that enables...this enabled me and freed me up to be like,

OK. How can we, kind of fold that in to our everyday, in the ways that we work and all of those sorts of things?”

00:15:02 Andy Goram

I think there are two incredibly important words when it comes to the world of culture and engagement, 100%. They're almost core foundations, I think, of the whole thing. And if we think about two outputs that we want from a great culture, is a workforce that feels that they can turn up and be there best every day and that want to stay with you, right? And act as a tractor beam bringing in other like-minded people. And if we think about the challenges that we face right now, there's a big piece in my heart that hopes you're going to say something positive about the following, but it will be my dream, that that focus on compassion and trust means that in the face of all the turmoil that we've had over the last sort of two, to three years, even in a rapidly growing start-up, that you are holding onto your people, and you are, in the face of the great resignation, or big quit, or whatever you want to call it, actually, you're managing to hold onto your talent, and they feel like they're thriving in that environment. Please tell me that is what's happening!

00:16:10 Tom Holliss

Yeah. I mean not everyone, but yeah, no definitely. And I actually... I think, you know, I think there's a growing perspective, that I'm hearing, that organisations are looking around and saying,

What Great Resignation?”

And it's the organisations that are prioritising those things and giving people, you know, real flexibility, giving them autonomy, giving them... like helping them to feel a sense of purpose, where there's values alignment, you know? Where they do feel like they could show up and be themselves. And also like you're paying well. Like this, you know, let's be real. Like it's a crazy competitive market and salaries are going (gestures up and up). So, like, we don't get that right, that's table stakes. But that aside, I think, yeah, you know.. and if you look at us, we're over the last few years, we have around 5% voluntary attrition. So, people do tend to stay, and like we regularly, you know it's happened three times this year, already, where somebody’s left and already come back. And this year where they go and try something else and realise, actually, I miss working there. So I think there's a lot of evidence to show that what we're doing is having a really positive impact.

And I do think that sometimes, you know, some people have a reaction to talking about things like compassion at work, like the idea of compassion at work. But actually, I think, organisations like ours, show there is a... like it's a real bottom line issue, you know? If you create a truly trustfull, compassionate environment, you get the better out of... people who are there can do better work and people tend to stay. It's easier to recruit people and all of those sort of things. When I think about compassion, again, you can think about it and think it’s a kind of always it means everyone being nice to each other, or it's like West Coast hippy crap, but actually, you know, for me, compassion is about accountability. It's about taking accountability for yourself and the impact that you have on other people. It's about taking accountability for the experience that people have in your organisation. And it's about taking accountability for addressing issues when you find them, you know? And so, for me, like compassion isn't like this sort of soft, fluffy-edged thing. It's actually saying like,

No, let's really treat people with the respect that all human beings deserve.”

And when you do, you get real benefits from it.

00:18:35 Andy Goram

100%. I mean, you're hitting all of my buttons today, Tom. I don't wanna bore my audience going off on rants about these sorts of things, but you know, compassion is far, far, far from a fluffy thing, you know? Care, empathy, I love adding accountability into that. You know, that puts a harder edge onto these things. And actually, the human skills that we need in that sort of environment are... they're not easy. They’re not natural to everyone. I mean let’s just picking up some of the words that you've used already on this show. Trust. Treating people like adults. Being human. Taking a personal approach. Using compassion. These are words that scare the bejeezus out of most CEO's, right? It's changing, which is great. But these kind of amorphous people things, where I have to take a personal approach to everybody in my organisation, and work out what's best for them, and how to adapt to them to get the best out of them - these can be scary things. But in a business like that you're talking about, you're using these to actually liberate the people inside the business, rather than relate back to the old-fashioned, command-and-control, you've got a set of tramlines that you must stick to, this is what we're doing. You're looking at the whole liberation of your workforce, I think.

00:20:02 Tom Holliss

Yeah, absolutely. And it's really interesting one. You kind of talk about scale as well, and I think we've got one of those classic tensions that we've been working through. So, we probably had... I’d say we probably had three different periods of intense scaling. So when we went from 15/20 people to about 70 or 80. Then when we went up to 200. And then, you know, in the last 14 months or so, we've gone from 200 to 300 people. And we're just getting, we're preparing ourselves for like, for the next one. So probably the 4th big kind of intense scaling exercise, and each one of those has brought a different set of tensions.

And it's that classic thing of like, how do you hold on to those intentions and those values while recognising that as you do scale, you naturally get a bit more role specialisation? You naturally need a little bit more process. I'm a big advocate... I call it to go back to my product roots. So I call it Minimal Viable Policies.

00:21:03 Andy Goram

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

00:21:04 Tom Holliss

So, what are the smallest subset of policies and processes that we need to do our best work, to be ourselves when we show up. To be as effective as we can. And also, yes, to be compliant in how we work and all those sorts of things. But primarily to be effective and to be able to be ourselves. And that changes over time. And managing that tension where you have new employees coming in, existing employees harking back to how things were several years ago. Human beings, in my experience, have... we've got an, you know, an unending ability to see the Rosie side of the past and dysfunctions of the present you know, we ignore the dysfunctions of the past, I think. So, like managing, that tension is like it's one of the things that actually gets me out of bed everyday 'cause it's... I just think it's a super interesting problem to think about and to sort of experiment with as we grow.


00:22:04 Andy Goram

I mean, I think it's interesting listening to you about the stages of growth, because I think you know that initial one, that sort of 50 to 70 sort of get to, is typically where companies make a decision to hardwire the culture stuff, or they don't. And I think it sounds to me like it was always there from the beginning, you're starting to hardwire it in. Communication at that 50 to 70 point is massively different, right? That's when it really does start to change. What has been the kind of biggest area of tension and change that you've seen through those stages, that you if you look back and you were doing this all over again, you'd go, “Right, that's the thing I've really got to get right from the beginning.”


00:22:51 Tom Holliss

Do you know what? I think the first thing is that I would have put in place some of the ways of working and some of the thinking that we have now at our level of scale back then. I think at that time you thought, “Oh let's evolve slowly.” But actually, the reality was that shift from pure start-up, where everyone is doing everything, and we're all working crazy hours, and you know, whatever it is, to OK now we're an SME, a small medium business. That was like the toughest transition of all of them, to be honest.


I read a great article a while ago, from someone who'd been through that experience at Facebook. And it was all about the importance of giving your Lego bricks away. You know, and if you don't give your lego bricks away, you just end up burning out. And you end up with massive dysfunction in the organisation. People get frustrated 'cause they don't have an opportunity to take new things on.

00:23:51 Andy Goram

So true, so true.


00:23:52 Tom Holliss

And so that's where like if I were going to give myself some advice back then, it would be,

How is everyone in this organisation, right now, thinking about what Lego bricks they're going to give away over the next 6 to 12 months.”

You know, and we didn't do that as well. And actually, I'll be really honest, I think that scaling, we made mistakes then, which loaded us with organisational debt and technical debt, that we’ve probably just about paid off now, and I'm talking like six years ago, right? And it was because we just... we scaled and knew where we wanted to get to, but we were just so focused on the doing, that it was really, really hard to get there. And I think, the intention of the culture was there during that time, but it got lost amongst the craziness, which is exactly what I think you're talking about. You know, it was probably when we got to about 150 people, that we really started to take stock and think , “This is not how we want to run this organisation”. And there was one book in particular called, “Reinventing organisations


00:24:57 Andy Goram

Ah, Frederic Laloux


00:24:57 Tom Holliss

OK. Yeah. So you know it's a case study of how organisations can operate. He's got three things. So like, deep self-management, evolutionary purpose, so purpose that kind of bubbles up rather than comes top down, and and bring your whole-self to work. And this case study of about 10 or 12 organisations that do this at scale. People often say, “These are nice things, you just can't do this at scale.” Well, that's just not true, 'cause there are lots of organisations that do it. And you just need to find a model that works for you. And so that was a really... there was a period of a good year or two, when we really took those on board and started to kind of... starting from those principles, it gave us a sort of framework to say, “Oh, actually there are different ways of approaching different things that we need to do, like compensation, like professional development, like how we do planning and like how we do reviews”, all these sort of things. There are different ways of doing this that we can explore that sit really well with our principles. And then over the years since then, so over probably the last five years, as we scaled, we kind of just continued to borrow different ideas, from different places and sort of, you know, the mechanics change, but the underlying... we want an organisation where people are trusted. We want somewhere where we always try and get down to root causes and understand what's really going on. We want a compassionate place where we put people first and have a very person-centered approach to the way that we think about work. And then those mechanics in each of those different areas change, based on the new people that you join or like what the new context is, or OK, now we've got an extra 150 people. How do we manage this new level of coordination that's required, yeah.

00:26:47 Andy Goram

And I guess, I mean, I think that's really interesting to hear. But from a product guy’s perspective, right? You will probably be in that whole, I don't know, build-break-fix mentality, of just kind of like, get stuff out, it's 60-70% there. Let's have a look. Does it work? What do we need to change? What do we need to do? And out of all of that craziness, you've got into, you would have made some fantastic decisions and some pretty suspect ones, I'm sure so...


00:27:15 Tom Holliss

What are you trying to say, Andy?


00:27:17 Andy Goram

Just loving the honesty! So, I'm just wondering whether, if you were to sort of look back and go, what's some of the crazy stuff that from a product guy perspective, in the world of people, that we brought to market and sounded great but didn't work? But conversely, what are the great things that have kind of emerged from that kind of process. And then how have you gone about making them stick?

00:27:39 Tom Holliss

Yeah, so I think the big one that really stands out is probably when we were at about 150 people. We tried to do a big self-setting, salary, exercise and ...


00:27:50 Andy Goram

Ambitious!

00:27:51 Tom Holliss

Yeah, and.. it you know, it... I think when I reflect back, you know, the question you need to ask yourself every time we're going to try and do something big and progressive and ambitious is,

Why are you doing this? What is it that you're trying to achieve? And is your approach really, the best way to try and achieve that? What's this in service to?”

And if I think back, we were probably a little bit guilty of being like, “Oh! This is gonna be an amazing, progressive thing. And we could like do a study of it along the lines like, actually how is this serving the people who work for us.”

And so, what we did, is we did it just with our product and engineering teams? There was about 80 or 90 people at the time. And you know, we said, “Look, we really trust you." Our goal was to take money off the table as a consideration, so we can just focus on the work and just focus on like everything else that we've got going on. Let's just take money off the table. And so, what we did, is we gave everyone... we said, “Right here's how the company is doing. Here’s some salary ranges, a competency framework,” and everything like that.

Go away. Have a think. Let us know how much you want to get paid.”

00:28:52 Andy Goram

Wow!


00:28:53 Tom Holliss

And it was interesting. But people came back and guess what? It was way, way over what we could afford.


00:29:02 Andy Goram

You surprise me!

00:29:06 Tom Holliss

And you know, I think the reality is that it can definitely work, but people need more support than we gave them. Is the reality. And you know, some indication of what's affordable, and like more data than we had available to us. The principle is sound, right? You don't need to restrict important decisions to a small group of leaders if you trust everyone and they have enough data to make the right decision. And that might be data in terms of like financial data. It might be data in terms of feedback about what a career path looks like, or like how things are going for them. All these sorts of things, and we didn't do enough... we didn't give people enough data, and so we ended up looking at it and going. “Oh no! OK this is unaffordable", and we ended up having to then go and talk to everyone and try and, you know...


00:29:54 Andy Goram

Gotta back-track from that point.

00:29:57 Tom Holliss

Yeah, exactly. Back-tracking.

It ended up being very long, laborious process and it ended up being exactly the opposite of what we wanted, which was to take money off the table as a consideration. And you know, we sorted it out and we got there. And then afterwards we kind of evolved that approach year-on-year and said,

Actually, you know what? Right, this could work. We could really lean into it. But is it in service of the people who work here. Who is it in service, what is it in service of?

And so, we've ended up at like a more traditional model, where we do like... we try to have a continuous conversation with people about how things are going and twice a year we sit down and we look and say, “OK. Like here's a framework. Here's how you map against it. We benchmark that to, you know the 75th percentile”, so we know we're really good payers and that sort of stuff. And we have a kind of a 2-way discussion about how things are going, about performance and stuff. And you know, it gives us a greater ability to ensure that there's pay equity and all of these sort of things.

But actually, you know, the freedom to choose your own salary, some people love that. And for other people it is terrifying.

00:31:08 Andy Goram

I was going to say, it's a scary, scary thing.

00:31:10 Tom Holliss

It is terrifying. I mean I would say, you know, it wasn't a complete failure. And actually, if I think back, of those sort of 90 people, after we had had a round of conversations with everyone to sort of, you know, help them to better navigate the framework, and then we sort of said, “OK. Now, could you have enough to go away and have another think and come back to us at the end of it.” There is only 5, or 6 people out of the 19, where we had to say, “Sorry, you’re still going too high.” And a couple of people who were like, “You've asked me. I’m going for that.” But there were more people who just said, “I don't really want to engage with this” or “Like just give me the cost of living, or whatever it is.” And we had say to them, “No. From an equity point of view, we have to give you more” and so yeah...


00:31:57 Andy Goram

Isn't that interesting? Really interesting.

00:31:58 Tom Holliss

So more of that than the other, but yeah, we kind of evolved to something a little bit more traditional. But we still try and create a space, a reflective space for people and let them lead the conversation and let them lead that process rather than us being like, “Oh, here's the budget for this year. This is the raise you're going to get.”

00:32:20 Andy Goram

Comes back to that trusted adults thing, doesn't it? That you've mentioned many times throughout this. And so, what's been the best thing, or had the most positive reaction? Or perhaps the biggest benefit to people?


00:32:33 Tom Holliss

I think there's a few different things that stand out. So, we've done quite a lot of work around diversity, inclusion and opening up opportunities for people to enter our industry who wouldn't usually have those opportunities. So personally, I'm quite proud of of those things and the programs that we sponsor and that we mentor on both. We're kind of sitting in two industries. So, we sit within tech and engineering and product. But also, within market research and insights and data. And each one of those industries has its own problems around diversity. So I'm really proud of the work that we've done in both of those areas to kind of open up opportunities to people. Because I think, when I think about you know, we have our purpose as an organisation, which is to help creators produce better work and produce better things for their customers; but we have another purpose which is, you know, to really, create meaningful, high-quality, well-paid employment, and to scale that. And to scale it to people who wouldn't necessarily have those opportunities. So I feel really like, proud whenever we're fulfilling that purpose. It's kind of my own personal purpose, but we've also like adopted it, I think, as an organisation.

And I think the other thing I would say, is around coaching and what it means to take a coaching style. And by that, I mean, you know, the kind of Socratic questioning, incisive listening that can bring that non-directive style. And, you know we have a real diversity of people, so not everyone... that's not everyone's natural style, but I think we've done quite a lot of work to equip people with the tools and the mindset to, you know, when the heat is on, not respond in a really directed way. But to respond in a kind of curious, emotionally intelligent way. And so, when I see that coming through in the way that people show up at work, that gives me a lot of satisfaction. Because he gives one of those things where it's harder to pin down 'cause it's about creating those cultural building blocks. It’s kind of about the skills that people have, but also the mindset and the emotional intelligence and that sort of thing.


00:34:40 Andy Goram

Is 100% my friend. I think that whole coaching mindset nowadays is, with all the generational shifts we've seen in the last in the last few years, and what have you, I think that kind of autocratic tell, tell, tell sort of style of management leadership just bounces off people now. I think they're looking for a lot more support. And I think you end up building a lot more capability and muscle getting people to think for themselves. And ultimately a good coach can adapt to their situations. They're not there to answer the question for someone, they're there to kind of make them think about really, what would they do differently? What would they build on? What would they continue to do? All those sort of really good things.

00:35:19 Tom Holliss

Yeah, definitely, and that’s not to say that, you know, we don't believe in being direct. And you know, I think this again is... we use something called the advice process. Which again from... borrowed from through the Frederic Laloux book, but from a company called AES and Dennis Bakke who came up with this idea. And this is an energy company. 10s of thousands of employees. US based, but global. And he came up this idea of saying actually why don't we devolve decision making by using this thing called the advice process so anyone can make any decision. All you need to do is seek advice from everyone who's going to be impacted by your decision, and some people who are experts who can help make a better decision.


The Advice Process by Dennis Bakke illustrated
The Advice Process - Created by Dennis Bakke

00:36:06 Andy Goram

Right.

00:36:06 Tom Holliss

And then you don't need approvals. You’re empowered to make the decision. And it goes back to what we were saying earlier. Trust people. If they have enough data, why do you need to restrict decision making to this small group? Anyone can make those important decisions. And that's really like a founding principle that we try to adopt. And what's kind of interesting, is some of the pushback you get around that is,

But it means we need to slow down”, or, “But it means that we're kind of constantly looking for consensus, and we're trying to get everyone to agree.”

That's not the intention at all. To me, that's just a really good way of working. You're going to make a decision. It's going to impact some people. Maybe check with them first and understand their perspective. That's going to help you. Some experts who can help you make a better decision. People who really know that domain, it's going to help you, you know, make a better decision. And so, it doesn't mean that everyone needs to agree. It doesn't mean that we really need to slow down. It doesn't take long to actually seek advice from people and if it's going to save you, in the long run, it’s a false economy not to do it at the start. And so, you know these sorts of things, it's easy to look at them and say, “Oh trying to get everyone to agree” or “A compassionate workplace means that we want everyone to be nice to teams”, and that's not true at all.

We want a direct, honest but also compassionate workplace. The two are not contrary to each other.


00:37:17 Andy Goram

No, that sounds like the Holy Grail, frankly. I mean, I think that's what we're all after. I think it's interesting to listen to you. And I can listen to you for a lot longer about this stuff. It's great to hear what people are really doing and seeing the effect. But if I want to sort of try and summarise what I think I'm hearing, the benefits of this approach is that you've now got, to all intents and purposes, an embedded culture that allows people to show up and be their best. You're treating them with respect. You're treating them like adults. There's a high degree of care. You've used the word “serve” an awful lot, when you've talked about today, so that whole kind of servant leadership is going. And, I guess the upshot of that is you’re still continuing to grow as a company. You're successful. You're holding onto a higher degree of your talent. Retention doesn't sound like it's an issue for you. And I suspect the knock-ons for that are, that you're also getting a reputation, which means you're pulling in the new talent that you need, who are aware of what's going on, are hearing from other people that they know or work with, and that whole kind of positive employer brand is working for you too.


00:38:28 Tom Holliss

Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. And look, you know you going to put me on the spot here, because I'm also a realist. And like I said, I like to... I just want to be honest. And we have our own share of dysfunction. I’m not going to come on here and say everything is perfect.


00:38:41 Andy Goram

Of course!


00:38:42 Tom Holliss

Like everyone is happy and all sorts of things, but, I think what we do very well is we're very principle-led. We take an approach of continuous, iterative improvement. And it's what I always say to my team and it's the kind of culture that we've always tried to push is, “Think about what we're trying to get to, and then every day to sharpen, iterate. And what's your feedback loop like? What data are you looking at? Where are you getting feedback from? How are you informing your decision making on the day-to-day basis, so every day we can just show up and try and do things better in service of the people and also aiming for that that longer term vision that we're trying to achieve.” And I think the other thing that I personally value and I hear a lot from people, is just that that level of honesty. Like when we get something wrong, we hold our hand up and we admit it. We're not of a size yet where we need to publish our gender pay gap, but we do. And we also publish our ethnicity pay gap because we think it's the right thing to do, and because we want to be honest about where there are areas that we think we need to improve. And that kind of mindset, we just try to apply to everything, because then when you... you know, I always think about it as like the Trust Bank. When you have a lot of credit in the Trust Bank, when you get it wrong, if you’re honest, you know you may be only running down that Trust Bank a little bit. And sometimes you're actually increasing the Trust Bank, because people see,

Well, OK, you know it that wasn't great, but at least... at least they tried.”

00:40:06 Andy Goram

That is so true, my friend. That is so true.

And I am now going to put you on the spot because unbelievably time has run away with us. I have this part in the show we called Sticky Notes, where I'm looking to try and consolidate all the things that we kind of talked about into three little takeaways. They could take those away and start getting benefit from the things that we've talked about today. So, Tom, what would your three sticky notes be?

00:40:34 Tom Holliss

I think first is to legislate for the majority of people who care really passionately about making an impact and want to show up every day and do good work, rather than legislating and creating rules to protect against a small minority of people that might abuse trust.

I think that’s the core fundamental that a lot of organisations get wrong. We've got it wrong in the past. But it’s what we've really tried to focus on.

00:41:00 Andy Goram

Love that.

00:41:01 Tom Holliss

The second thing I would say is, you know, if you are working in a scaling organisation, put as much effort into supporting your existing staff team, as you do bringing on new people as you scale. And that idea of like, giving your Lego bricks away and creating spaces for people to talk about what can be really tricky and challenging tensions that arise as you scale, you know, and talk about how the culture is changing and all of those sorts of things. So put as much energy into existing staff teams as you do bring new people on.


And then I think from a kind of broader point of view, I would always just say like, approaching... what's your long-term vision? What's your feedback loop? Those two questions, like are questions that I just ask about every project that we have going on. Everything at work. What's our long-term vision? What are we really trying to achieve here? Like, OK, yeah, OK, let's think about the initiatives. But what's our feedback loop, so we can show up every day and work better in service to our people and towards that long-term vision? So I mean, if you're answering those two questions, and you feel confident in it, you're never going to go far wrong.

00:42:09 Andy Goram

Brilliant! Three really high-quality post-it notes there, for people to kind of take away and learn from someone who's been there. He's not saying everything is rosy in the kitchen, but he's saying actually our kitchen’s pretty rosy. There’s some mopping up to do every now and then right but...


00:42:24 Tom Holliss

A bit of cleaning up.

00:42:26 Andy Goram

It’s cleaning up, but people spill stuff. It's a good place to be.

Tom, I know you're incredibly busy, and I say that to lots of people, but I do know you're incredibly busy, with a lot going on. So, thank you so much for your time today. I've loved listening to your story and thank you for sharing it with everybody.

00:42:44 Tom Holliss

Real pleasure, thanks for having me, Andy.


00:42:46 Andy Goram

No problem at all, my friend. You take care.

Well, that was Tom Holliss, and if you'd like to find out a bit more about him and a bit more about Zappi, and any of the things that we talked about today, please check out the show notes.

00:42:57 Andy Goram

That concludes today's episode. I hope you've enjoyed it, found it interesting and heard something, maybe that will help you become a stickier, more successful business from the inside going forwards.

If you have, please like comment and subscribe, it really helps. I'm Andy Goram and you've been listening to the Sticky From The Inside podcast. until next time, thanks for listening.

Andy Goram is the owner of Bizjuicer, an employee engagement and workplace culture consultancy that's on a mission to help people have more fulfilling work lives. He's also the host of the Sticky From The Inside Podcast, which talks to experts on these topics from around the world.

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