This is the story of the hardest business lesson we've ever had to face up to. It's an incredibly difficult one to write about... but it's also been one of the most valuable learning curves for me as a founder.
We care deeply about how small companies achieve their potential. The key to their success lies in unlocking the best in their talent; creating the environment for their people to do exceptional work. Charlie is a small company too, and while we're constantly thinking about how we can build a great place to work, we are - of course - still learning. We make mistakes. And when we do, we want to share them in the hope that our community can learn from where we went wrong.
When we first started Charlie, one of our investors camped in our office for the best part of a month. He was helping with our growth strategy while getting to know our team and business more intimately. In the process, he became both an incredibly useful sounding board and a great friend of the company.
When it was time for him to leave, he took Rob (my co-founder) and me for breakfast. He was extremely complimentary of the people on our team. He praised the mutual trust that fostered a true sense of collaboration and our candid approach to feedback.
Then he hit us with this:
"Overall, and I don't know a nice way to say this, I just don't see the urgency. It feels like a 10-5 culture, interrupted by lunches and coffees. Our best teams work like crazy."
My heart sank deep into the floor beneath me. It’s extremely difficult to handle being told that you’re just not pulling your weight. Worse still, we instantly knew that he was right.
As we reflected together over the hours that followed we realised we had fallen foul of a far bigger error. We had obsessed - as we often do - with building a culture where our team loved to come to work, rather than one that encouraged them to deliver their very best. To really achieve maximum results, we had to push our people hard so they were constantly out of their comfort zone.
What's more, of course, is we felt that they deserved that. Our team members are ambitious. They want to learn and grow quickly. By not pushing them we felt like we were letting them down as well.
"We need to focus on creating a culture that has "high performance" at its core. We have to raise the standard for what we expect from the team - and ourselves - and clearly outline what this new world looks like. We need a process that can guide and support everyone in understanding where the bar is now set and how we're going to help them reach it."
That meant things were going to get harder. More uncomfortable, more stressful, and more demanding. It wasn’t about reversing many of the cultural foundations we had built, we had to layer something entirely new on top.
What does “high performance” look like?
We had multiple discussions… with the team, with advisors, with other founders, with customers. Who are your best people? What makes them that way? What are their common attributes?
Almost always the conversation revolved around characteristics -“team player”, “fast thinker”, “self-motivated” - all labels that recognise a trait but aren’t particularly informative. It’s not very helpful to tell someone they need to be a “team player”. We needed to tell them what a team player does. What a team player looks like. How a team player behaves.
That would enable us to be really clear in our explanations of what individuals needed to change and how.
Identifying our high-performance behaviours
We set two very clear limitations on our hunt for the right behaviours:
- We focussed on the short term. Understanding that we needed to make an impact fast, we asked ourselves what we needed to achieve over the next quarter to make progress.
- We focussed on the specifics of our team. We didn’t aim to identify the universal set of behaviours that would be present in any high-performing company but to address the key areas where we felt we were letting ourselves down.
When it came to rolling out those high-performance behaviours we had an advantage. Many of our team had been involved in the identification process already so the “launch” was hardly much of a surprise.
Understandably, amidst the excitement, there were some nerves and a healthy dose of scepticism. That wasn’t driven by cynics as much as it was simply that change is always uncomfortable.
Rolling out our high-performance behaviours
Step one: evaluate
To kick things off, everyone in the business rated their peers anonymously on a scale. The aim was that we could all understand the perception of how well we did (or didn’t) exhibit each of the behaviours. We used the below scale so there could be no “average” option - if an individual wasn’t “good” then they were deemed “poor” - and each scoring had an invitation to attach comments.
- very poor
- Learning #1 : Anonymous ratings weren’t effective. We had never done anything anonymously previously and always took pride in our ability to be candid with each other face-to-face. This somewhat atypical strategy of ours was perhaps driven by a stirring lack of confidence in our own judgement! The anonymous process felt incredibly alien to everyone and created a weird mist of mistrust. That’s the last time we’ll try it.
- Learning #2 : The quantitative assessment wasn’t hugely useful. In fact, we all found it incredibly frustrating. The written notes were far more insightful and, as a result, everyone now invests a solid amount of time in providing detailed written feedback, avoiding any numerical scoring at all.
- Learning #3 : You are now only reviewed by your immediate peers in your team. We found this was where the most valuable insights came from and it enabled everyone to invest more of their time in offering really sound reflections on those they worked closest with.
Step two: review and reflect
We sat down with every individual in the business to review the feedback they had received and help them dissect it.
Each person identified their two weakest areas and shared those publicly with the rest of the company. That gave us all a good opportunity to be vulnerable - we capitalise hugely on vulnerability as a way to build stronger and more effective bonds within our team.
- Learning #4 : We now pick one weakness and one strength (or “superpower” as we call it). That not only ensures we are championing the “good” behaviours, but also demonstrates examples for what “good” looks like and who can help you get there.
Step three: the action plan
Each team member then works with Ben to create their development plan. What opportunities are there for them to work on developing these behaviours? What do they need to help them do that? Where can they find more support/insight/inspiration? How can the company help support them?
While Ben helps guide the process, it has been particularly powerful when these plans are self-directed. An important part of developing the behaviours is the personal reflection that goes into understanding what they look like and how you can get there.
Learning #5 : We originally shared our action plans with the whole company too, but this became a huge amount of reading for everyone and an unhelpful distraction. It’s hard enough remembering your own! We no longer do this, although it’s unlikely anybody would shy away from a request if asked and I’m sure they are discussed in small groups on occasions.
Step four : weekly coaching sessions
We invite every team member to a thirty-minute coaching session each week to mould/adapt their plans, reflect on what’s working (and what’s not) and keep momentum.
Regular, short check-ins ensure that everyone is held accountable, that their work on developing behaviours remains front of mind and that there’s an opportunity for feedback on the process. We’ve also found it an invaluable source of understanding for us as a company to determine what more we can do to help, support and guide.
Step five: reset and go again
As a company, we operate in ten-week OKR cycles, so the “gap week” in between those is an ideal opportunity to regroup and reflect. We refine the behaviours and clarify their descriptions, fine-tune the process and look at the results in the wider context of the company’s goals and ambitions. This is a crucial moment to ensure that everyone has the ability to shape our culture together before we begin “step one” again at the start of the following cycle.
It’s a constantly iterative process, and we’re refining as we go. It would be a lie to suggest that we have all now perfected these behaviours - or even the approach - but it’s undoubtedly had some palpable outcomes to date:
- A few people have left the business. As often happens when expectations change and the standards are elevated, it creates discomfort that isn’t welcome to everyone.
- Everyone is far happier… in spite of the fact there is more pressure, more stress and a more demanding slate of work. It turns out that people with the potential to be high performers really do prefer to operate outside their comfort zone - you just can’t expect them to venture there themselves the whole time.
- Over the past few months in particular, we’ve delivered the best work we’ve ever done - faster than we would ever have been capable previously - and the hunger and ambition within the team demonstrate there is even more to come.
It’s been an enormous investment of time, but that is easily time well spent.
The theory: high performers keep getting better
Truly great performers never stop. The world’s best cyclist or violinist doesn’t call it quits once they’re at the top of their game, they keep on pushing for more. Their standards are not driven by some arbitrary level, but by the innate obsession to be the absolute best they can be.
We believe the same applies to developing high performance in the team we have at Charlie. On each occasion that we achieve our goal, we reset and go again to aim for something new. Something bigger. Something that will continue to stretch us. There is no finish line.
Charlie currently uses OKRs as our framework for setting objectives and planning work. Each OKR cycle, we push harder to improve our performance level, and at the end of that period, we rest. We break through our current “sustainable” performance level to grow into the unknown and, when we take a break, we return to a new, higher constant. Our “new normal”. Each cycle we follow the same process so our new normal increases each time.
In exactly the same way, our High Performance Behaviours process should improve and evolve as we learn so we can provide the best environment for our people to continue to push themselves and raise their new normal. We’re always thinking about how we do this.
Evolving our high-performance culture
As with all things worth doing - we don’t know all the answers yet - but we have started to line up the key questions that we’re exploring and hope to continue sharing our theories for how to answer them.
How can we find opportunities to make expectations clearer?
We’ve learnt that clarity of expectations is the lifeblood of driving high performance. Already we know that taking the time to collectively outline and what “good” behaviours look like is useful. Could we also do the opposite? Describe clearly what “poor” looks like, so we can be informative not just about what to do but also what not to do?
How do we do more to champion individual progress and standout behaviours?
An important element of any feedback process is publicly calling people out for success, not simply because it’s important to recognise progress but also because it continues to demonstrate to everyone what “good” looks like and reinforces the standard and example that’s expected.
How can we make the behaviours each individual is working on more visible?
It’s clear that the more we understand the behaviours our colleagues are working on, the easier it is to help them... give them feedback where you identify the wrong behaviours and encourage them when you see them demonstrating progress. Short of everyone wearing badges (!), how do we make them more present in every meeting and conversation?
What more could we do to bring these behaviours to life within the business?
If we should be continuing to invest in our individual development of these behaviours - above and beyond the daily team tasks we have to execute - it’s important we find ways to keep them front of mind. Any new initiative, however compelling, will pass its honeymoon period eventually, so we must find new ways to ensure the conversation is continuous and doesn’t turn stale. We’re currently finding books and scientific studies that can offer up interesting reading and references for each behaviour.
Can we build team pairs to help everyone help each other?
One person’s weakness is another person’s superpower. How could we match people so that they can better learn from each other? That might develop a more regular peer support/feedback approach - on top of Ben’s coaching sessions - as well as present a potential solution to how we scale those weekly one-on-ones.
How do we hire for high-performing behaviours?
We need to develop a bank of questions/tasks that we can set in the interview process to identify which high-performing behaviours might be weaknesses and which strengths. It’s important to remember that weaknesses/strengths are relative in each person, so we should perhaps review if there’s a minimum expectation we require for each behaviour. Similarly, we need to decide how important we should hold these in the hiring process and how “coachable” these behaviours really are for everyone.
How do we onboard new hires effectively so they understand the importance of these behaviours and the process we use to develop them?
Many of the existing team members are at an advantage. They’ve been included in the entire process of developing and integrating high-performing behaviours, and so have an understanding that’s far more advanced. We need to ensure we onboard people effectively. We also need to recognise that the behaviours selected were not a universal set of what we believe to be important and that some areas that seem implicit if you’ve been in the company for some time may still require reinforcement for new hires.
"I would add something around feedback/honesty/candour/etc to the high performance behaviours list - I think it's not there just because it's implicit to most of us, but it would help new joiners to have it spelled out.
What conclusion we got from our high-performing behaviours?
“Work hard and be nice to people” - this Anthony Burrill print has held pride of place in our office since the day we started the company.
It’s an important principle, we feel for our high-performance behaviours. That kindness and generosity of heart need never be sacrificed in the pursuit of anything worthwhile, and a reminder that - in the throes of ambition and hard graft - we’ve gone too far if we forget our courtesy.
While we try to live by it (I’m sure with varying degrees of success), it’s one thing to impose those standards on ourselves - to “be nice” while being sure that we’re “working hard”. But when it comes to driving others around us, pushing our team to work hard and demanding more and more from them … is it possible to remain the nice guy? Is there a reason so many tyrannical leaders achieve great results?
“A nice leader takes the time to understand what an individual wants and - providing that can be achieved within the scope of their role at the company - earnestly does everything possible to help them get there.”
How to be a leader everyone wants to follow so everyone performs at their best
We settled on the following as being qualities a 'nice' leader has:
- Treats everyone with respect and talks to them as their human equal… recognises that hierarchy exists as a decision-making layer in an organisation, not so that one person can talk down to anybody else
- Understands their personal life as well as their professional one… realising that work is just one part of the whole person, but that it has huge effects on the rest
- Cares deeply about each individual and their goals… understands what they want out of their role and their life, and ensures that they can follow/achieve those goals within the context of the company
- Works with them to create a plan for how they’ll get there… agreeing collectively what needs to happen for them to achieve the results they want
- Holds them accountable… ensures they stay honest to the plan and avoid the inevitable human traits of wandering off course and falling into bad habits
- Gives regular feedback… even if it doesn’t feel “nice” to point out their flaws, it’s an important part of empowering them to be their best and reach the goals they’ve outlined
- Checks in regularly… ensuring a constant reevaluation of their path, reminding them that they have the support of the company and safeguarding that endorsement
At Charlie, we’re a high growth business with big ambitions. It is a brilliant place to be for those who want to become the best in the world at what they do, quickly. It’s an awful place for those who don’t have the loftiest of aspirations.
Crucially, what matters most is unlocking what is at the heart of each individual. If you care deeply about them - and respect the fact they’ve chosen your company as the place for them to realise their goals - then ensuring their personal ambitions are aligned with those of the company is paramount. If that’s in place, then pushing each other to work hard towards them is a collective responsibility that everyone should relish.
Find out more about working at startups in our complete guide: HR for startups.