Happiness is…a work environment where people feel good about themselves and are empowered to do their best work
In the 1980s, I was involved in a project to set up a radical campaigning left-of-centre Sunday newspaper based in London. We raised £6.5 million in investment. By six weeks after the launch, we had lost the lot. We had hired some fantastic people, talented and motivated. And then, inadvertently, we created a working environment where it was almost impossible for them to succeed. It was a great irony that a company set up on humanistic principles was the worst place to work. There was endless backbiting, meetings, no clear decision making, endless blame, all of that.
After that, and the experience of getting sacked from my next job after just 12 days, I decided I didn’t want to work for anyone else again. I would work for myself, and focus on how to create a great place to work, on how you deliver great service, while being effective and principled. The next question, obviously, was what kind of business. I did a chart of what I enjoyed doing, what makes money, what doesn’t. With my IT background and affinity for people, I settled on IT training as my niche, and started a company I called Happy Computers in 1990, in my back room in East London.
Two years later, I was your typical, stressed out small businessman. I’d be on holiday with my family, ringing back every day to check on things. Then I read a book describing management as I’d hoped but never imagined it could be. The book – Maverick! – describes how Ricardo Semler took a radical approach to workplace democracy at the Brazilian company Semco – including giving front line people decision making power once reserved for managers. And the results were impressive results; Semco increased productivity sevenfold and profits fivefold in an environment of commercial chaos, hyperinflation and recession. I was inspired. I had everyone at Happy read it.
Power to the people
Getting managers out of the way and letting people perform was my first priority. That meant giving people freedom…but with clear principles. We didn’t want rigid rules but we did need systems that everyone understood, for getting things done. We needed a climate of trust. Part of that involved banishing the old fear of making a mistake. Part of it meant giving front line people the authority they needed to do their work, including pre-approval of funding requests. Things changed. A year later, I was out sick for three weeks with pneumonia, and had no contact with the office. I came back to two phone calls, and sales had gone up.
I got more ideas from the work of Marcus Buckingham, and his concept of “strength finder,” which is built around enabling people to do what they actually do best. One of his most powerful messages, for me, was that the old practice of identifying your strengths and weaknesses, and then throwing your efforts against addressing the weaknesses, is a waste of time. You’re better off acknowledging your weaknesses and simply not working in those areas; instead play to your strengths. And that applies to management, too.
Early on, partly by accident, we realized that people really valued the coaching and sponsorship they had been getting from their managers, which was different from the traditional management role. That led to the radical view that managers should be chosen according to how good they are at managing people, rather than technical competence and how long they’ve been at the job. We call them coordinators. You still need the technical expertise; they’re just different roles.
It also reinforced my faith in “re-evaluation counseling,” which I’ve been involved in for more than 20 years. The basic principle is that what we need is attention, to work things out. Most people need someone to listen to them, pay attention and support them while they get their feelings out. That’s why we believe that feedback is crucial, and insist on upward appraisals for managers.
I think most recruiting is almost designed to recruit the wrong people. Central to our approach is that we never ask for qualifications. I think it’s profoundly discriminating to ask for degrees because normally it has no relation to the job; and working-class, disabled and black people are all under-represented at universities. It doesn’t happen at Virgin because if it did, they wouldn’t hire Branson. We don’t normally need to advertise job openings for trainers; people sign up on our web site to express their interest. When we have an opening, they are emailed two questions: why do you want to work for Happy, and what makes a great trainer?
When we devised our current recruitment, we thought of other areas where you have to choose from a lot of people in a short time. Two areas we thought of were speed dating, and the TV programme The X Factor. Our applicants are sent the company’s principles, and invited to Happy’s headquarters, in groups of twenty. We’re looking for people who are supportive of each other, so we want to see how they interact. We have asked them to prepare a 15 minute training session, but about ten minutes before they have to deliver, we tell them they have to cut it to six minutes. That lets us see if they have the potential to train, and how they cope with change, a crucial criterion for a good trainer. Then they train; we assess them using a clear marking system; and we give them feedback – that’s the speed dating part. The X Factor part is that, after the first round, they coach the performers. They try and find the potential. So, second round interviewees deliver a training session; we take them out and coach them; and they deliver it again. If they don’t respond to our coaching, and give the same session, they don’t get through.
Our administrative staff – we call them “smoothies” after Sade’s “Smooth Operator” song – sit in on team interviews for admin staff. We’re not hung up on formal qualifications there either. We recruited someone at age 16 who became the finance manager at 21, without the standard basic math qualification. And, do you know, in her three years in the job she never had to calculate the angle on a triangle or solve a quadratic equation. She was brilliant at getting people to pay up, and in our business that’s the most important thing.
As we gained confidence in our business philosophy and public recognition – we were rated among the top 20 workplaces in the UK - we decided to try to help other organizations create great workplaces. So, we now have three divisions: Happy Computer, for IT training; Happy eLearning, for online IT training; and Happy People.
Our aim at Happy People is to change the way people work in the UK, so people look forward to coming to work, work to their strengths, fulfill their potential, and make the organization more effective. We offer consulting services, but we have also written a book that communicated our philosophy through a fictional tale of how a frazzled small business owner discovers another way to run a business. I recently posted a draft of a second book called The Happy Manifesto on our company site, and invited people to offer feedback, and share examples and stories related to the management principles in it. Sharing what we’ve learned and building on that through others’ experience is just part of what I believe in, and what we do.
Challenge: Transforming management culture and practices radically and quickly
- Solution: Be an enthusiastic champion, and “walk the talk”
- Solution: Build on others’ experience, but adapt it to yours
- Solution: Engage everyone in the organization, in the new experiment
- Solution: Celebrate success, extol the benefits
- We have very low turnover, and a huge back log of people interested in working for us.
- We’ve won awards for best work/life balance, and best health and well being of any UK organization. We have been rated in the top 20 workplaces in the UK for five years in succession.
- We get constant feedback from our customers. We count on them to recommend our work to their colleagues, and currently 98.7% of them say they would and 78% say they already have.
- We won an award for the best customer service in the UK. The reason, according to judges, was that most companies understand what the customer wants, but then put in place a system of processes and rules that prevent their frontline staff from delivering what the customer wants. Happy doesn’t; it trusts its people to deliver.
- We have won Gold twice at the annual IT Training Awards.
- We are a small player with hundreds of competitors. Our training courses cost £220 a day while our biggest competitor sells them for £90 a day. The IT training industry has contracted over the last ten years, but we have grown.
About optimizing workplaces
- Enable people to work at their best
- Make your people feel good
- Creating a great workplace makes good business sense
- Freedom within clear guidelines
- Be open and transparent
- Recruit for attitude, train for skill
- Celebrate mistakes
- Community: create mutual benefit
- Love work, get a life
- Select managers who are good at managing
About management innovation: Be on the lookout for good ideas – from whatever source – be creative and brave in applying them, learn and pass those learnings along. Be a change agent, within and beyond your organization.
Create a Great Workplace - Now. The Happy Manifesto is Happy's 2nd book. Filled with stories, examples and practical tips, it is an essential guide to anybody wanting to improve their workplace. Download it here: http://www.happy-people.co.uk/resources/books/happy-manifesto/
- The Secrets of Happiness, Julian Birkinshaw and Stuart Crainer, London Business School, Management 2.0 Labnotes, Issue 7, February 2008