This is the basis of a speech I gave for The Supper Club (www.thesupperclub.com) at The Engine Shed in Bristol.
“My name is Derek Moore and as EJ mentioned I run a visual effects company called Coffee & TV. We have made a name for ourselves in our industry by becoming the place where the best artists want to work, so I am pleased to have been asked to tell you how we did it.
Firstly, I should explain that I didn’t make all of this up. I’ve seen it from both sides, as I spent 25 years as ‘talent’, working for some of our larger competitors. I experienced first-hand what it is like to be in the bowels of the machine, slaving away with little idea why you’re doing what you’re doing, other than knowing you have a mortgage payment to make at the end of the month. When we started Coffee & TV we didn’t have a grand business plan to disrupt the status quo, we just needed to attract some of the talented artists we already knew to come and work with us. We used our knowledge of the industry to create a company that set out to be better to WORK IN. One where we didn’t overwork our staff and genuinely valued their contribution.
As much as I would love to give you a list of tactics to try to get the best out of your people, the very term ‘tactics’ is rather disingenuous don’t you think? Certainly, if any of our talent thought we were using tactics on them, they would be immediately suspicious. For us, it all starts with authenticity. I went back to business school to try to properly learn what it takes to grow a successful business. There, we spent some time analysing our ‘strategic assets’ – those things that every business has, that make it in some way different to its competitors, that give it an edge. Ours was our people. Without our people we just have an expensive Soho studio with a load of flash computers in it. We can’t create anything. I’d suggest that most businesses are the same. Even if you run an autonomous online platform, or some kind of robotic production line (one of my partners likes the analogy, a dildo factory), the people that make the smart decisions behind the scenes, or deal with customers or suppliers in person, are probably making the biggest difference. Staff will probably be your biggest expense, so you really need to make the most of them. Your other big expenses; rent and rates, leases, loans, equipment; well, you just have to pay them. You can try to get more out of your space, or better terms with your suppliers, but success in these areas may affect your business by 5 or 10% at most. Optimising your talent has an exponential effect. It’s a similar magic to compound interest. Start doing it well and you’ll see tremendous, non-linear impact for years to come, with ever-diminishing input from you as a leader.
Ok, I know what you’re thinking. Cut to the action. What can I do with all of these people I pay, that are hungover, faking ‘sickies’, playing politics or becoming masters of passive aggression? Well, I’m sorry but the tactics I would advocate are all to do with you! I bought an 8-week-old puppy a while ago. I took him to obedience classes, thinking they would train him to be obedient. If anyone here has done that, you’ll know that the training isn’t really about the puppy, it is focussed on YOU. You need to be clear and consistent with your instructions. You need to quickly reward the right behaviour. At the end of the course you could tell which dogs would perform well in the test – those with the calm, engaged owners who had listened attentively and taken on board the trainer’s advice. The puppies that were running around everywhere, sniffing each other’s bums belonged without exception to the owners who were the least committed to the process. I think that illustrates the difference between businesses that put the effort in to taking care of their staff, and those that see them as a burden. So, without wishing to compare your wonderful workforce to a litter of mischievous puppies, you do need to get the basics right first.
A good place to start is Dan Pink’s book, ‘Drive’. It is basically the science of what motivates us. Spoiler alert: the answer is ‘autonomy’, ‘mastery’ and ‘purpose’. If you can provide these things for your teams, they will go the extra mile for you, and more importantly, for each other.
In reverse order, ‘Purpose’ means what gets them up in the morning? What are they trying to achieve? Do they have a clear idea of what your company is trying to do, and do they know how their role contributes to that?
‘Mastery’ is about where they are operating in relation to their skill level. Are they hopelessly out of their depth? Are they bored? We all know that we enjoy things a hell of a lot more if we are good at them. I can’t bear golf for exactly that reason. If I could put the little white ball on the beautifully manicured grass the other side of the lake, with one whack of the long metal stick, it might be fun. But wandering around in the woods for hours on end really isn’t. You can help your team achieve mastery by individual action plans. We do it in quarterly 121s. Ask them what they like, what they want to be better at, how you can support them with coaching, mentorship, resources… whatever it takes. Help them feel powerful in their role and their output will go to unimaginable levels.
‘Autonomy’ for us is all about trust. We trust our people to get on with the job (as long as they know what their purpose is and they are capable of delivering it). They trust us to pay them properly (and on time!), and together we acknowledge that we will bring up any issues before they become more serious problems or resentments. In that context they can be left alone, to flourish.
So, there are 3 tactics that are pretty famous and definitely work. I’d like to add another 3 of our own. They are alignment, transparency and failure.
Alignment is really important. We need the agreements we have between us and our staff to be mutually beneficial. And here there is unfortunately no one-size-fits-all solution. Some people are only motivated by money. Well, they can go work for a bank, we can’t do much with them. Not compared to people with more to give, but with more complex aspirations. Our best people also want money, but they are smart enough to know that there is more to life than that. They want career progression, to be pushed and to learn as they go. Some want perks, some a larger basic salary, most like the fact that we share some of the company profit with them twice a year. Many value flexibility, work-life balance and being part of a team. There are lots of different variations. So, we need to make sure we pay at the top of market rate (because we need the best talent available), but most importantly we have to keep communicating with our people individually and regularly, to ensure we are meeting each other’s needs. Once we have alignment, almost all the little problems disappear.
‘I’m really sorry but the client has changed the brief. Please could you work late tonight?’
Transparency seems to me to be to be just plain humanity. Don’t hide the good stuff. Or the bad stuff for that matter. Treat people with respect, as you would wish to be treated yourself. Share the knowledge. It’s not power, at least not until everyone is working hard to solve the common problems. And how will they know what problems are important if everything is secret and behind closed doors? Ok, some people might be a bit scared of the numbers, but I guarantee those specific people will be more scared if they have to make up for themselves what those numbers are! And no one wants to be busting their balls day and night just to make the boss rich. These days we are lucky enough to be able to pay ourselves pretty well from the company we created. Our staff appreciate that. One day it will be their turn. There would be nothing worse that working yourself to the bone and STILL the boss can’t pay the rent. As far as you can possibly do it, be transparent with your talent.
This might sound counterintuitive, but if you can fail fast you change fast. And being change-ready is vital these days. The pace of development is increasing in almost all sectors. A successful company today will by definition not be successful in 10 years’ time if they continue to do only the same thing. We all need to change and grow, and the way to do this is to make failure ok. If people never fail, they are not pushing themselves enough. A great book to illustrate this is Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed. He shows that the ability to learn from mistakes transformed early aeroplanes from horrific death traps to become the safest form of transport. At the same time the painful culture of cover-ups and denials that the medical industry went through stunted progress and endangered millions of lives for decades. Failing fast and learning from those lessons may not save lives in your industry, but it can certainly save jobs!
I’ll leave you with one last mini-rule that is equally tough to implement, but absolutely imperative. In fact it draws on my pet analogy from earlier. You have to drown your puppies. It sounds cruel. But every company has that member of staff who should have been put out of their misery ages ago. They might be your first employee. They might look at you with those big puppy dog eyes. They might cry.
But if you don’t let them go, they will, over time, send the message that it’s ok to be a bit shit. You know who they are! They are nice people, they have a family, a mortgage to pay – how will they get another job?
Do NOT let continued under-performance be tolerated in your business – otherwise, in the end EVERYONE will be looking for another job.
After the first day of shock (and please employ an outsourced HR professional if you don’t have one in-house), you will be amazed how uplifted your whole team will be. They’ll be nodding to each other, proud that their management is up to the job and that they are working for a REALLY GREAT COMPANY!
So, in summary, really truly appreciate the value of your talent. Treat them at least as well as your highest paying client. Clients will come and go, but your team will hopefully be there for you through thick and thin. However, make it clear that having management who support them so well is a two-way street. They MUST live up to it!
Thanks for listening.”