I’ve just finished reading The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek and I’ve got to say it’s had a big impact on my thinking.

Most of the accepted wisdom around business is based on finite thinking. The pie is a fixed size and there will be winners and losers. Thinking that emphasises ‘first’, ‘biggest’ and ‘best’.

Instead, Sinek suggests we should think about business as an infinite game, with no winners and losers. Where it’s about the drive to be ‘better’ rather than ‘best’.

Our intention at Breathe has always been to make the pie bigger – develop the best software possible at a price that every business can afford. Regardless of size.

The part of the book that really got my attention was when Sinek started talking about his personal ”just cause’:

“To build a world where the vast majority of people wake up inspired, feel safe at work and return home fulfilled at the end of the day”.

Wow! It sounds so obvious and yet so powerful. It resonates perfectly with our purpose at Breathe where we’ve set out to inspire the businesses to build happy, healthy and productive workplaces by nurturing a people first culture.

If we play the game of business with a win:win mindset then ‘them and us’, (bosses and workers) thinking has no place. Workplaces will naturally become happier, healthier and more productive. And finally, people will feel safe at work and return home fulfilled at the end of each day.

Why and how, not what.

I hosted a webinar today on resiliance and specifically how we prepare our businesses to come out of lockdown with confidence rather than fear.

Part way through, I realised there was something to learn about company culture. We we’re talking about what businesses had done to tackle the impact of lockdown and how we could use that to move forward. But I came to the conclusion that it’s not ‘what’ was done that was important. It was why and how it was done that really mattered.

Culture is about ‘why’ and ‘how’, not ‘what’. If I ask you to adopt a set of values (what) then I need to demonatrate the importance (why) and model the action (how).

Take Breathe’s ‘People First’ value. For you to accept that value I need to explain why – because we want Breathe to be a place where people feel safe to be themselves. Then follow that up with an idea of how – ‘to walk a mile in their shoes’.

Theres a popular definition of culture as being ‘how stuff gets done around here’. I now believe that it’s only half the story. Culture is ‘why we do stuff around here and how it gets done’.

Why ‘People First’ matters now.

We’re building Breathe around the cause of inspiring businesses to create happy, healthy and productive workplaces by putting their people at the heart of what they do. We call this a People First culture.

This may sound grand and inspirational (which to some extent it’s intended to be) but it’s also immensely practical at a time like this when we need to pull together to get our businesses functioning at their best.

Being People First starts with building trust – with so much fear and uncertainty in the world, businesses need to focus on being both trusting and trustworthy. But because businesses are made up of people (admittedly people with different job titles) what this boils down to is every person in an organisation trying their best to be both trusting and trustworthy.

The process has to start with the leaders – the clue is in the name. I accept that this will be a giant leap for many who are struggling to keep their businesses afloat. But time and time again I’ve seen that if you are trusting, people will usually prove themselves trustworthy.

The best news is that when people have a shared sense of trust it gets easier for the leaders. And maybe it isnt so lonely at the top, because the top just got a bit flatter.

Are you a creator or a consumer?

Whenever our country, community or business faces a challenge we, as individuals, have the power to decide whether we’re going to join the search for solutions or become part of the problem. This is the difference between creators and consumers.

To some degree everyone creates and everyone consumes, but it’s down to each of us to decide which way we generally lean. It doesn’t have to be a binary decision and we certainly don’t need take sides for ever. But sometimes our experience makes us want to engage and at other times we’re best off leaving it to others. I cant contribute to the search for a Covid 19 vaccine but I have definitely chosen to use my skills to help find business and economic solutions to the current crisis.

Creators are people who believe they have the power to create the kind of solutions they want. Note: A creator is not necessarily creative, it only means they have the desire to take on the challenge.

Consumers are people who lean towards the view that they have little power to create the solutions they want or need. Instead they must select from options already on offer, wait for others to help them or accept that nothing can be done.

Sweeping generalisations have their limits and certainly neither approach is wrong. Where things become difficult is when someone is permanently stuck as one or the other. But in general I tend to think that life is more rewarding as a creator.

Creators have a growth mindset and consumers a fixed mindset. Creators tend to not think in terms of something being done the “right” way; instead they start with the premise that there are an infinite number of options to get the job done.

So, do you have the mindset of a Creator or a Consumer? Is your life constrained by what ‘they’ say or do you blame ‘them’ for your situation? I accept that things happen over which we have no control but life is generally better when we do what ever we can to put our future in the hands of ‘I’ or ‘me’.

Create a culture of intimacy

My latest Audible ‘read’ is Small Giants by Bo Birlingham. It’s a study of companies that choose to be great instead of big. Now, everything’s relative and many of the companies he studies are pretty big, but the point is they don’t focus on growth at all costs. I love books like this because they dig deep into what makes companies tick and no surprise, culture is usually in there somewhere.

The authors found that there are three broad imperatives that the companies they studied all pursued in different ways and with different means. They centre around creating what Burlingham calls a ‘culture of intimacy’ – where employees know that the company cares about them and they, in turn, care about the success of the company.

The three imperatives are:

  1. Articulating, demonstrating and imbuing the company with a higher purpose. The purpose needs to be based on what the company does, the way it does it, the good that comes from doing it or most commonly an element of all three. It’s more than a mission statement – it needs to form part of the fabric of the company by continually reminding employees why their work matters and why they should care about giving their best effort.
  2. Reminding their people in unexpected ways how much the company cares about them. The key word is ‘unexpected’. There are many standard tools available to companies who want to show appreciation but they are all expected and can be taken for granted – salary, performance awards, flexible schedules, benefits packages, promotions. The companies Burlingham studied use all these tools but they went further in unexpected ways. The key is to understand and support what makes each employee different. It might be extra flexibility to look after sick relatives, time off to travel, funding an acting class – the list is endless because your employees are all unique.
  3. The way that employees feel about each other, the mutual trust and respect they share. Do they enjoy working with each other and will they go out of their way to resolve conflicts? At first glance it feels like a company will have little control over this but you certainly know when you walk into a workpace where the employees clearly get on with each other. Burlingham found that their sample companies worked hard to nurture collegiality. Leaders opened up to their team members and showed a genuine interest in the lives of the people that work for them. It’s sometimes described as being like a family but I prefer to think of it as being like a high performing sports team – you come together to do a job but while you are together everyone knows you’ve got their backs.

As ever with all things cultural – these sound simple but they are definitely not easy to achieve. The good new is that after initial thought, all three imperatives depend on small, incremental, habit forming steps. Every one in an organisation needs to play their part. It’s the job of the leadership to act as conductors, keeping the orchestra in sync and moving forward at the right pace.

Does your company have soul?

Some companies are just different – there’s a buzz about them, they’re clearly more robust, driven and purposeful that their peers. Even in difficult times they seem to have direction – employees know where they’re going, customers know what to expect and the company feels in sync with it’s market. You could call this culture but I’ve recently heard it described as a company having soul.

Great companies understand the importance of building relationships. They start with active and meaningful dialogue across all stakeholders: employees, customers, suppliers, community and investors. Dialogue based on mutual respect leads to clarity; clarity results in shared understanding that builds long term relationships. And soul grows out of deep relationships.

The work of a great leader is to give their company it’s soul. They know it takes time and cant be forced; but more than anything else they know it needs constant nurturing.

What are you doing today to nurture your companies soul?

A new kind of meeting

Leading a small business through a crisis requires a very different kind of leadership. It’s much more hands on and intentional. Ben Horowitz describes it as being a ‘war time CEO’, as opposed to a ‘peace time CEO’, in his book ‘The hard thing about hard things’.

Very early on we started to form an action plan based around a simple Green, Amber, Red status. This plan guides our actions, measures progress and informs / reassures all our stakeholders.

It was obvious that we were already beyond Green and heading towards Amber so we started to take appropriate steps. It wasn’t going to be business as usual but with appropriate action our business would be safe. My heart goes out to the businesses that needed to instantly go into survival mode or worse, shut down.

Being a war time CEO means constantly analysing what’s happening, reviewing every action and making fast decisions. Its a time to be agile and flexible, taking input from many different sources.

Going through this process at Breathe, we discovered very early on that our leadership team meetings needed to change in two important ways:

  1. They need to be weekly rather than monthly; and
  2. The agenda needed to change to being more intentional.

We took our standard agenda and modified it as follows:

1. Check in – each person scores 1-10 on how they are feeling at that moment about business and personal. Score below 6 and we talk about it. This is standard to all our meetings.

2. Acknowledgements and living values – again this is sandard to all our meetings. The intention is to highlight the great things that we’ve noticed around the business.

3. Team Pulse – this is a new agenda item. Every attendee has 5 minutes to report how their team is feeling and how effectively it is operating with specific reference to the crisis. The goal is to surface any friction.

4. Actions from last meeting – nothing special or new about this agenda item.

5. Business update – We’ve modified this to be punchier and more granular than normal. It’s a short, sharp intake of KPIs. Actions are agreed and recorded.

6. Financials – this section is where we review actual vs the revised Amber forecast. Every leadership meeting should have a financials section but this is just a bit more focussed. Actions are agreed and recorded.

7. AOB – we don’t like AOB that is raised on the day. If there is something to discuss then it should added to the agenda in advance to allow thinking time and avoid hijacking the meeting. We need to get better at this!

8. Wrap up. This section has three parts:

  • Actions – We use this time to make sure everyone is clear about each agreed action. The new thing here is that we have added another person to attend the meetings whose sole job is to capture actions.
  • WWW – what went well in the meeting
  • EBI – even better if. How could the meeting have been better.

None of this is rocket science but we’ve found it to be a good format for where the business is at present. I don’t doubt that it will change again as we try new things and learn what works.

A time for curiosity

The 24hr media machine is drowning us in a flood of content that is near impossible to ignore. All the top ‘news’ stories are about the Corona Virus pandemic but it’s hard to unearth the facts that enable us to take control of our own thinking.

To keep our heads above water demands a level of curiosity that starts with understanding:

  • what we already know;
  • what we don’t know;
  • and crucially, what we think we know, but don’t.

Then comes a quest for data (facts) to fill the gaps – don’t be taken in by editorial comment which is someone’s opinion. Add to that a curiosity about what others have discovered and consider why they might have different views to us. If we take all of this data and process it into information we are well on the way to gaining knowledge.

The more we cultivate curiosity, the more knowledgeable we become and the better we are able to handle our fears of the unknown.

The need to be present

Being present for your people is a vital leadership quality and incredibly important in these difficult times. But it’s way too easy for leaders to get trapped behind busy schedules or to give out signals that what they are doing is far more important.

When our people are worried its essential that we over communicate and work hard to share our thoughts and plans. At Breathe we’re using video meetings to keep the culture alive and ensure everyone feels supported. We’ve stepped up the number of companywide meetings, team stand-ups and 1-1 check-ins so that everyone gets to hear what is going on and has a voice.

However you go about it, when someone raises a concern there’s never an excuse for not responding or making time to talk it through. However it comes in, quick chats, emails, calls or messages, they all need responding to.

Sound like a lot of work? Well that’s just part of the job description for a true leader. But it can also be the most rewarding part of the job.

The future of work

Recent research has shown that we’re actually running out of people and the people we do have are becoming less and less productive.

Unemployment in the UK is running at an all time low, at the same time that we are in the midst of a what is slightly comically called a productivity puzzle.

So the future of work is one where there is a severe talent shortage. One where employers must compete for the best people.

To grow our businesses we need to consistently take on the unmet and often unarticulated needs of our customers. This takes empathy for those customers and empathy is still, thank goodness, a human only skill. We cant rely on the robots!

To thrive we need to have the best people working in our businesses and then help them get to the top of their game.

Our challenge as leaders is to focus on building company cultures where our people learn new skills, generate new ideas and generally grow as people.

Culture change happens by evolution not revolution and the good news is that, as small businesses, we dont need anyone’s permission to change.

We can, and should, start today.