A few months ago, if you’d have asked me what I had in common with Richard Branson, I’d have probably said a love of the British Virgin Islands and the occasional use of Virgin Atlantic flights. However, on a sunny Thursday this year, I found myself in a lift on the way up to the Skylounge at Millbank Tower, overlooking the Thames.
I was headed to the B Team's ‘People Innovation Network Gathering’ – an event for CEOs and company leaders to get together and talk about how to make business ‘more human’.
I’ve run TPP for 19 years now. We are a small company with around 200 employees, and I am extremely proud of what we’ve achieved. As well as having a positive impact in the UK healthcare sector, we are now expanding our products globally.
However, we’ve often been viewed by others as being a bit different because of our culture. We’ve always tried to have a flat hierarchy, and about two years ago, we got rid of middle management altogether. Our ethos has always been simple, we want our staff to be ‘bought in’ to our vision. Staff should be prepared to work hard and work together.
So getting an invite to an event like this – alongside execs from companies I’d long admired, such as Google and the BBC – was a great privilege, but I was apprehensive as I prepared for the ‘Gathering’.
I had read about some of the surprising ideas other companies – from employees setting their own salaries, to allowing unlimited annual leave – and arriving at the event I found myself sceptical that it would be no more than a cynical PR exercise. However, going down in the lift eight hours later, I realised that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It was a real pleasure to be in a room with individuals who completely shared my ideas and values. These were people who understood that businesses don’t have to be run in traditional, structured ways. Some of the ideas that came out of the day seemed a little wacky, but what the day really gave me was confidence; confidence that it’s OK to create a culture that’s different, and that there’s always more we can do to improve.
Prior to attending the event, I’d asked all my staff to take a half day away from the office, looking at the B Team’s ‘Nine Elements’ of a Human Centred Company, to evaluate where we currently were and what more we could achieve. As always, my staff came up with some valuable suggestions about how we could communicate better and there were some interesting discussions on pay and benefits.
When I returned from the event, I spoke to each team about what I’d learned. All of the staff were very enthusiastic and we had a lot of interesting discussion about other companies’ ideas. The topic I wanted to probe further was the idea of setting our own salaries. We’d always got good feedback about our pay and benefits, but we wanted to be the best, not just for Yorkshire but competitive in a nationwide market too. One company at the ‘Gathering’ had set a minimum salary for all employees, which I thought was an interesting concept. Therefore I asked my staff to go away and think about how much they thought they should be paid. Some teams thought they should have an increase in salary and asked for a raise, which we happily gave them. It proved once again that having an open discussion with staff leaves everyone feeling much happier, on the same page, and ultimately more valued as employees.
So now if someone asked me what I have in common with Richard Branson and his Virgin colleagues, I’d say an attitude to business that’s ultimately very human-centred, and a willingness to keep learning from others and growing alongside my staff.
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