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.

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?

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.

People First – a recipe

In my talk at our People First Conference last week, I gave my take on a simple recipe for becoming a People First organisation:

1. Treat people as individuals

At the heart of People First is the premise that every employee wants exactly the same thing – to be treated as the unique human being that they are. And that starts with genuinely caring for them. The key word is genuine.

Anybody who’s run a business will know that managing people can be messy but if you go the extra mile for them, they will certainly do the same for you.

2. Communicate as adults

People are too often expected to work without knowing where the business is going, let alone understanding whether we as their leaders have the faintest idea how to get there.

The people who work for us want to know three things:
– Where are were going
– What’s expected of me
– How well are we doing

(Credit to Ian Windle for this gem.)

3. Give them engaging work to do

Good people are in demand and they too demand more from us as employers. They want the businesses they work for to have a purpose and the work they do to be worthwhile.

4. Reward them for the contribution they make

Reward is way more than just money. Yes, people need money to live but no amount of money will keep them at a job they hate. We need to find the right way to reward every individual in our organisations.

That’s it. As I said, its simple but I didn’t say it was easy!

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.

Repetition is your friend

It takes someone hearing about your product 10 times before they buy.

How many times do your employees need to hear about your strategy before it becomes embedded in daily worklife?

The answer seems to be that you can never talk about your strategy too much. Thats not an insult, it’s just a fact of life. People are busy, they have lives to live and daily tasks to do, so telling them about your ‘go-to-market’ strategy won’t sink in easily.

Finding new ways to share the same message is key to keeping strategy alive. People learn in different ways so try lots of different mediums.

In summary – if you’re not bored with saying it, then you haven’t said it any where enough.