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.

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.

First Breathe customer conference

I’m preparing for our first customer conference this week – on the topic of People First. What else!

We’re taking over the IoD conference space in Pall Mall and are expecting 250 attendees to hear from two great Vistage Speakers – Marcus Childs and Ian Windle.

This is a chance for #teamBreathe to get out of the office and meet face to face with some of our customers. When we first launched Breathe I thought having 300 customers would be amazing and here we are with nearly that many in one room at the same time.

It’s going to be a day to feel proud and feel grateful.

2020 focus

Two of my favourite words in business are ‘simple’ and ‘focus’ and I dont believe they can ever be used enough when talking about strategy or operations. I’ll cover ‘simple’ in another post as I want to get up on my soap box about businesses being focussed.

Focus means being crystal clear about what we do and most importantly, who we do it for. I’ve worked for companies of all sizes but my passion is for small businesses and consequently that’s where our focus lies – businesses with up to 250 employees. It’s not a guideline, it’s a principle. I would genuinely rather sell to a buisiness with 40 employees than I would one with 400. Let me be clear, if a great business opportunity comes along for a company with 400 employees we will politely say “no thank you” because you can’t flex a principle.

The reason for this is that everything is different with mid-market and SME businesses: proposition; go to market; delivery, support, etc etc. I don’t know of a single software company that has done both markets really well. And we’re not about to try to be the first!

Everything we do is designed to meet the specific needs of smaller businesses. Their needs are often no less complex but their resources are always smaller. Fewer people to allocate to a project, less money to spend and shorter timeframes. The flip side is often greater need, faster decision making, higher engagement and stronger relationships.

I believe this level of focus provides clarity for #teamBreathe and has the best chance of providing our customers with the solutions they need, at a price they can afford.

The case for NPS

I had an interesting conversation recently about how useful Net Promoter Score (NPS) is to a small business. The CEO I was speaking to had reluctantly run an NPS survey at the request of a third party. The score wasn’t brilliant so he and his team were feeling the need to find reasons and justifications.

But that’s missing the point – NPS is all about measuring improvement. They’ve taken the biggest step by setting a benchmark to improve on. If you don’t know where you are, how can you decide where to go? And if you don’t keep score how will you know when you’ve got there?

Yes, it’s great to have a high NPS but the real benefit comes when a score is low. We’ve been measuring NPS at Breathe for a number of years and it’s enabled us to focus on customer delight leading to a good score (in Oct 19 our NPS score was 40). In fact we’ve just made NPS one of our two top level KPIs and I’d encourage every CEO to start measuring.

Built on values

We’re building a culture at Breathe around three values that define who we are and guide how we behave. But values are only worth having if you’re willing to be held to account so I want this post to publicly encourage everyone one in #teamBreathe to hold me to account as I won’t always get it right.

To be part of Breathe means striving to live up to these values:

People First – I treat everyone with respect and always walk a mile in their shoes.

Growth Mindset – I take responsibility for my personal and professional journey by seeking to continuously learn and improve.

Can do – I take a pro-active approach to my work by demonstrating energy and enthusiasm in everything I do.

These values help us take difficult decisions and guide the way we interact with our colleagues, customers and suppliers. Their strength comes from the fact that they require thought to apply and are not easy to live by. We are the first to admit that we don’t always get it right but, true to a growth mindset, we try to learn from our mistakes and do better next time.

Our hope is for Breathe to become a showcase for how we think businesses should be run and to inspire others to follow and do the same. The feedback we’re getting and the awards we’re winning suggest we’re heading in the right direction.