This post is co-written by Tom Greenwood and Chris Hardy, with contributions from Vineeta Greenwood and Roxanne Sun
Since Vineeta and I founded Wholegrain in 2007, we’ve had a vision to create not just the most sustainable business possible, but the best work culture possible. I have personally always wanted to create the type of business that I dream of working for myself and that I imagine others do too. We’ve come a long way in 13 years and I’m genuinely proud of what we’ve achieved, but somehow I always feel the need to go further.
In this post I’m going to talk about some of the challenges that Vineeta and I face in trying to be good leaders, why it has led us to create roles specifically focussed on human development, and how we hope to create what is called a “Deliberately Development Culture”. That last bit might sound like a really dull piece of jargon, but stick with me, and I promise you won’t regret it.
In sharing our journey to date, I hope to shine a light on the importance of building an organisational culture that values personal development, and highlight how investing in people can be a really smart move.
Swimming out of our depth
Firstly, let me get something off my chest – I find running a business really hard.
Ah, that feels better!
I never really intended to lead a team and be a Managing Director of a company. I’m a laid back, shy person who struggles to talk to strangers and has difficulty voicing my opinion. I’m arguably not at all well suited for the job that I do. However, I’m also an independent thinker who can’t stand to accept the status quo and who has an intense desire to contribute to a better world. This side of me is clearly the dominant force, and the quiet introvert has been dragged kicking and screaming to start and lead a company.
This has led to achievements that I am incredibly proud of, but it hasn’t been without its challenges, not least in trying to be a good team leader. I’m a long way outside my comfort zone on a daily basis and that can be both scary and tiring. However, when I feel myself make progress in overcoming my weaknesses it’s incredibly rewarding. I might not be a natural leader, but constantly pushing myself to do things that don’t come naturally has been one of the best things about running a business. I have achieved things that I never thought I could do, and gained a lot of confidence in the process.
Vineeta has also faced personal struggles with the immense and relentless pressure of running a company. In 2016 she hit a low when she experienced a burnout. The pressure was simply too much, and the question was not just how, but if it was possible to get back on the horse. It was in this make or break period that she embraced the full spirit of personal growth. As someone who had always seen the value of fitness coaching (and having been a fitness instructor herself), she decided to apply coaching to improve her own state of mind.
In her own words:
“I found an amazing mindfulness coach near where I live and she taught me about mindfulness and taking things slowly. She also ran through a few calming physical exercises to do everyday at bedtime, just before I go to sleep. These calmed me down enough so I could return to work quickly, but didn’t attend to my main concern which was why my mind went into a meltdown in the first place.
After a few months of feeling like I was walking close to the edge, someone introduced me to the quality of mind coach, Martin Palethorpe of Be Unbounded. Martin helped me to see what my mind was doing, and how my own mind could lead me to success, if only I let it. He took me on a journey that radically changed my perspective, not just on the world around me, but more importantly, on myself. I’ve worked with Martin and his colleague Rena since and have come on a journey of huge personal growth.”
Both Vineeta and I have found ourselves out of our depth on many occasions, but have faced our own limits and experienced how rewarding personal growth can be. It is in venturing out of our depth that we have learned to become better swimmers. In fact, now that I reflect on it, I can see that nearly everything Vineeta and I do in our professional and personal lives comes back in some way to a desire to constantly improve.
I know that Vineeta and I are not the only people at Wholegrain Digital who feel a hunger to overcome our own limitations. I want to support my team in pursuing this and I strongly believe that if we can create a culture that puts this at the heart of everything that we do, then we will not just be more successful as a business, we’ll all be more fulfilled as human beings.
In search of the Holy Grail
I want to create a culture that encourages personal growth, but that’s easier said than done. In fact, while there are many companies that claim to encourage personal development, the companies that do it well are very rare indeed. The question burning inside my head for a long time has been, how can we shift from wanting this type of culture to actually having it? How do we achieve this holy grail?
Don’t get me wrong. We have for a long time had a very positive and supportive culture at Wholegrain, but that doesn’t mean that we have had a culture that truly helps us all maximise our own potential. Part of the reason for this is that everyone at Wholegrain is really really nice (if I do say so myself). Working with nice people is great, but the problem with being nice is that we are often more likely to shield each other from our weaknesses and shortcomings than we are to help each other face them head on.
When I stopped to reflect on this earlier this year, my intuition told me that we needed some people in the business that were specifically focused on nurturing personal development. After weeks of reading, calling other business leaders for advice, and covering our dining table with sticky notes, I had a vision that I believed would work.
Around the same time, our People Manager Neisha made the decision to head back to the land down under to be near family. While this was a huge loss for us all, I decided that we must embrace the opportunity to try something different.
The plan was simple, if not easy
We would split the existing People Manager role into two. First, we would hire an HR Generalist to take care of the day to day HR admin side of things. We would need someone who understands the overall vision, and unlike the rest of us, knows how to deliver a bit of tough love when needed.
Then to compliment this HR role, we would do something unusual for a small business. We would hire an in-house team coach. I had seen from Vineeta’s experience with coaching how profoundly enriching and beneficial it could be, and she had said many times that she wished we could give that experience to everyone at Wholegrain. What better way to do that than to have a dedicated coach within the team, who is there to support everyone as equals in their personal development.
This would require us to make a financial commitment, but Vineeta and I both believe that this will be of true value to everyone in the team, and that if it succeeds in helping us all play to our strengths and overcome some of our weaknesses, then it will even pay for itself financially in the long run.
When we started talking about this plan, I have to admit that it got some mixed reactions, including some blank stares from people who either didn’t get it, or thought we were stark raving mad. Nevertheless, we trusted our guts and ploughed ahead to recruit two amazing people.
Putting the human into HR
Neisha called one day and said “I just spoke to a candidate for the HR role and she is amazing!”. That person was Roxanne Sun, now our new HR Generalist. When we interviewed Roxanne, I was immediately impressed with her in-depth HR knowledge, but what struck me most was that she was not someone who treated HR as a dry admin function. I could see that she viewed HR as a supporting role to each individual team member, and to the team’s overall success. Here was somebody who truly embraced personal development as a key component of team performance and personal fulfillment. What’s more, she struck me as someone who had the ability to say what needed to be said and push us forwards as a team without beating around the bush. I’m not going to lie, this scared me a little bit, because I knew that she was a person who would at times push me outside of my comfort zone, but that is exactly what we needed.
Roxanne has hit the ground running and is already helping us to put more clarity in our structures and get more organised with our day to day HR management.
I think Roxanne put it perfectly when she told me that we all want freedom, but that true freedom does not come from a lack of rules and boundaries. That is anarchy. True freedom comes from clear structures within which we can operate autonomously. Structures that are designed not to limit us, but to help us all fulfil our potential, support each other and flourish as a team.
We don’t have all the answers, but we are beginning this journey to put structures in place that do exactly that. These structures should protect the collective needs of the group, while allowing space for us all to be unique individuals.
In Roxanne’s own words:
“Humans are socialised animals. We thrive when we are united and we are stronger when we are together. But on the other hand, humans are the most distinguished highly evolved individuals, each one of us a different body and mind. So it is important to value and respect the uniqueness and individualities. We must try to understand everyone’ feelings, needs and mentalities with empathy to create a nonjudgmental and unbiased environment.”
Coaching for everyone
Having decided that we should also hire a team coach, I quickly realised that I didn’t know how this role would work, and that finding someone for this unusual role would be almost impossible.
This was not a role that we could post on Indeed and expect to find the right person. I didn’t even know how to write the job description. How would we find the needle in the haystack, when we didn’t even know where the haystack was?
Then as the Coronavirus pandemic unfolded, I attended a webinar on emotional intelligence run by Chris Hardy, a professional coach who worked for a fellow B Corp. I was really interested in some of the ideas covered in the webinar and followed up with Chris afterwards to discuss further. We got chatting about web design, marketing and the wonders of Marie Kondo’s folding method.
I decided to take the opportunity to run my slightly vague idea for a coaching role past him to see if he could give any advice on how it might work. We had a great conversation and together found clarity on what we were looking for in this coaching role.
Here’s the pitch:
“We want to create a culture where people can bring their whole selves to work, where we can help each other grow, learn new skills and overcome weaknesses. We want to foster a transparent, entrepreneurial culture in which we all understand the mechanics of the business and work together as equals for mutual success.
The team coach would be an independent person in the team who could help us help ourselves to move towards this vision, without getting caught up in the day to day business of making websites.”
It was clear that Chris and I were totally aligned on the vision and believed that it could work. The only question was where we would be able to find a coach who would be equally aligned, care about our ethos as a company, and be available to join our team to embark on this experiment with us?
We had a follow up call and Chris said somewhat gingerly, “Tom, if you’d consider it, I think I’d like to do this with you”.
The universe had delivered!
So here we are, with Chris Hardy as our new Team Coach and Developmental Lead.
Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organisation
You might have noticed that Chris’s job title is not just Team Coach, but Team Coach and Developmental Lead.
This is because when we started getting into the details, Chris told me that the vision I was talking about was not entirely new. In fact, it had been studied by academics in real businesses and had been proven to work. It was called a Deliberately Developmental Organisation, or DDO, and is explained brilliantly in the book, ‘An Everyone Culture’.
I’ll hand over to Chris to explain why the DDO approach is relevant to our times, and what this means in practical, human language.
Before proceeding I’d just like to share that, although analogously referred to above as a ‘needle in a haystack’ and some kind of answer to Tom’s prayers, what I think he’s getting at is that it’s not me who is the solution, but the excitement and potential for the organisational culture we’re working to create within Wholegrain.
That’s the Holy Grail. Far from me being the end of his search, I feel more like we’ve come across each other on a similar journey. Our compasses are pointing the same direction, we envisage the same goal, and our different skills and experience are aligned; and so we take a sip of tea from our thermos, hoist our packs, and continue the journey, doing so we welcome you on this path too. It’s a mutual exploration through which we all stand to benefit.
The DDO origin story
The origin of the DDO culture is built on adult-developmental theory. Essentially this states that, contrary to previous belief, as adults we can continue to learn and grow, achieving greater levels of mental complexity throughout our lives.
Applied to an organisational setting, we see that our work culture is the ideal place for our growth to be facilitated; we work with other people, through this we face challenges, our weaknesses become apparent, and, if properly done, the culture is such that our development is supported to move us beyond these limitations and into new levels of operation.
Ways of working in the modern workplace are changing and we’re witnessing an emergent paradigm in human and organisational development. Off-sites, executive coaching and culture days (once a year!) – have, in many ways, proven fairly ineffective. Our modern economy; in part defined by its uncertainty and changeable nature, demands ever greater levels of agility and adaptability, leadership from all parts of the business, flatter structures and an unprecedented level of responsiveness. To satiate this demand, our developmental initiatives must keep up.
We’re also witnessing the rise of ‘new incomes’. These are things that we now all expect from our jobs beyond money, such as fulfillment, satisfaction, happiness and a sense of ‘bringing more of yourself into the world’. Important to millennials, these are now considered essential to Gen Z. If, as an organisation, you’re not meeting these new demands then the consequence is quite simple; your best talent will leave, disengagement will be rife, and service quality will suffer.
A functioning DDO
A DDO culture is built upon a few key principles and practices. How these are applied is unique to the organisation. Specifically at Wholegrain we’re working on things like:
- installing the practices of giving and receiving meaningful feedback
- knowing each other’s and our own weaknesses or ‘backhands’
- knowing what we need to do to work through our limitations
- sharing our ‘growing edge’ and getting support from peers
- giving and receiving coaching in 1-1 and group settings
- sharing appropriate levels of vulnerability with the team
We are in the initial stages of this process but so far our group sessions have been well received and the 1-1s have begun well. The team recognises the value in this initiative to their individual and collective career trajectories and engagement in initial surveys and training conversations has been high.
Once the culture shift begins to take hold I envisage a second stage of bespoke developmental coaching modules for small groups (called ‘Sprints’), designing internal ‘fail-fast’ projects that maximise learning opportunities, and the crafting of individual growth plans with targets.
We may not have found the Holy Grail but this does at least feel like a pioneering business move that is backed by 40 years of social science research.
Onwards and upwards
This somewhat lengthy blog post is not a report of success, but instead an announcement of a new journey that we are embarking upon.
For all of us at Wholegrain Digital, this is an experiment that we are a part of together. We will no doubt trip and stumble at times, but that’s all part of the journey of learning and progression. And so we set off, full of both excitement and trepidation.
Just like we have done over the past few years with our adventures in sustainability, we will share our experiences in trying to create a deliberately developmental culture openly here on our blog. We hope that our own experiments, successes and failures will be of value to other organisations who share our passion to pursue relentless forward progress, and we hope to also learn from those of you on a similar journey.
In doing all of this, I am confident that we will become stronger as individuals, closer as a team and more successful as a business.
If you’d like to ask us questions about any of this, or share your own experiences with us, please do get in touch.