Build a business, create a great culture, win awards and make a profit

In: BlogDate: Aug 05, 2021By: Billy Burgess

Dominic Monkhouse knows life is short and he doesn’t want to waste it. Dom developed the UK divisions of the web-hosting businesses, Rackspace and Peer 1, and tried to make them exciting places to work by giving employees freedom within clear guidelines and heeding the "recruit for attitude, train for skill" precept. 

Dom's acutely aware of how little time we have to make a difference. In his talk at the 2017 Happy Workplaces CEO conference, Dom poses the question, “What are you going to make a difference in? Who with?”

Read the transcript and watch Dom's full talk below.

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Build a business, create a great culture, win awards and make a profit

Everyone’s got a piece of paper. There’s a figurative timeline down this side, you don’t have to draw that, that’s unnecessary, but at the top is when you were born, at the bottom is when you're going to die and at some point on here is where you are now. So I’d like you to fold that paper based on your perception of how far through you are and just tear that bit off because that is in the past.

Now at some point you are going to retire. So between today and there fold across where you think you are going to retire and rip that bit off. You should have a thinner piece of paper left. Tear it in half. So that bit was: sleep, washing, shopping, shaving, whatever. Now this bit, a third, rip it off. That’s travel, eating, housework, sex, queuing. You got something left? Rip that in half and that is entertainment and exercise. You’re are left with a small piece of paper, relative to what you began with, and it is the time you have left to make a difference so what are you going to make a difference in, who with, what? But that’s all you’ve got.

3:08 - So on my PC I actually have a death clock. So when I open a tab on Chrome is comes up with a number of days, nine thousand-and-something. People say, “How is that the right number?” The point isn’t that it’s the right number, the point is it reminds me everyday, or however many times during the day, what am I doing? Life’s short, don’t waste it.

So, this is me, this is where I am, ask for a copy of the slides. The reason the email address is ‘askforhelp’ is because people never used to ask me for help and I really quite like helping people. So I read Adam Grant’s book Give and Take and I met a guy from a digital agency who had done this and stole his idea, because that’s what I do, that’s what I’ve done all my life - none of these ideas are original or mine, I’ve just stolen them and curated them. So that’s the email on my LinkedIn profile and so people do email me and ask me for stuff or ring me up now. People even ring me at the weekend now, which is great, I love talking to people, so if you’ve got anything you’d like some help with, ask me.

This is what I’ve spent most of my working life doing, selling or hosting data centre space. Exciting, isn’t it? It is just a big fridge full of computers and it’s always been my job to get more people to put stuff in our fridges full of computers. I’ve run companies that are the plumbers of the internet, not very exciting businesses really, but I’ve tried to run them in an interesting and exciting way.

I’m going to talk about Henry’s book, The Happy Manifesto. I was lucky enough to be an early proof-reader – I think I still have the original copy in Word. I’m going to share stories around freedom within clear guidelines and then I’m going to talk a little bit about recruitment and recruit for attitude, train for skill. 

One of the other things I did recently, there was an article on Medium and a guy who read 60 books in a year, and he said he thought he’d try and read 70 next year. It made me wonder how many I’d read in 2016. I didn’t count the ones on the shelf that I actually physically bought, I just looked on Audible and Kindle and I’d done 101. So I haven't set myself a goal this year of reading more, but I get through a load of stuff. So lots of the things I’ll share with you, I’ve stolen from other people's books.

This is why I think the Happy Manifesto and building an engaged workplace are so important. My goal has always been to grow the revenue of an organisation – from scratch to something, 25, 30 million whatever it may be, or fix and organisation, or consult with clients as I do now and help them grow their business. This is what I think is up for grabs – it’s about 40%. If in an organisation if you give about 60% of your effort you won’t get fired, that’s probably OK, and if you can get people to be engaged then you get an extra 40%. The Sunday Times Best Place to Work, having spoken to them some years ago, they said, “if you can get staff to feel engaged they’ll work 30% longer hours for 5% less pay and be happier than the people who aren’t engaged.” So as a business owner, I look at that and go, why would I not want 40% free discretionary effort? So what do I do about it? You don’t just buy them an ice cream or give them a pool table, you have to be authentic about that, you can’t make people do it, they have to want to do it. 

Some of the stuff is around this; core of culture vs artefacts of culture. So I’ve gone into some organisations and this, what do people do when you’re not looking stuff, underneath the waterline of the iceberg of culture. Above it is what people tell you as a business and then there’s the stuff that you can pick up as a vibe and there’s how people react. I think you can find some of that out even from interviewing people. Some of this will be, “How do you want your organisation to be?” not how it is. So quite often I’ll sit down and talk to people about values and they’ll say “integrity,” and you can’t have integrity as a value. Not that you shouldn't have it, it’s just that nobody could pick the opposite of that as a competitive value. So you couldn’t go to market and say, “We are the company with no integrity” so don't say you are the company with integrity – or honesty or teamwork or efficiency because none of your competitors are going to say anything different. You end up being beige. You end up just sounding and looking like everybody else. The same with some of this stuff; rituals and ceremonies. Think about what you do in your organisation and you may already have something you could be more explicit about. That’s is some of the stuff I want to talk about. 

Rules and policies, we already talked about that this morning. Even language. So one of the things I should have fixed and didn’t is your staff handbook, because if you go to your lawyers and ask for a staff handbook it is written in legalise. The lawyer takes the stance that your staff are a bunch of thieving gypsies and they should be treated in a particular way and it is written like that. You can’t get them to write it in plain English, so organisations that I’ve had, then just ignore the staff handbook, that’s for grievance if we get there, but that’s one of the things I would change now.

Here’s something which is a great piece of research in the Harvard Business Review that I was reading just a couple of weeks ago. A lot of organisations ran themselves like this: stability, certainty, simplicity, clarity. They had rules. Now its all around volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity. They looked at an organisation named Precision. What they said, is that at one level you need rules, you need to be consistent. There is a level of consistent performance for any job in an organisation – salespeople need to make calls, they need to visit customers, they need to send out quotes, there’s stuff you need to do. But what happens is, a lot of organisations think that is all you need to measure so they get very good at having rules and following rules, but that only gets them so far. So they built a production line so the managers can see the entire team on the production line. At every minute of every day the managers can physically see the human being. So they did an experiment where they blanked off and the managers couldn’t see the staff. Guess what happened to productivity? Productivity went up because the employees knew there was a smarter way to do things, but when the managers are watching, you can only follow the rules. So when they couldn’t see, they worked out how to do this a bit smarter and shared the smarter stuff. So if you want to have an agile organisation that changes as a result of your environment changing, you have to inspire the staff to change the rules or break the rules or challenge the conventions.

I quite often go into organisations and see a boardroom and get a sense of whether this is likely to happen in an organisation. So I go in, pick a whiteboard, pick up a marker and it won’t work, and I’ll pick up the next one and that won’t work either. When that happens, I realise that nobody here cares. I worked in an organisation that had broken chairs in their boardroom and one of their lights flickered. For three months the light flickered and for two months the chairs were broken. I came in one day and they’d replaced all the chairs, and I thought, “That’s great, that’s progress.” But they hadn’t, they just piled all the broken ones up in reception and for the next two months they were still sitting there. 

In great organisations the staff care and fix stuff, so how do you make this a cultural thing and embed this in your organisation? So what I want to do is share a few examples. So this is one of the things I did; I had new employee lunch, had sandwiches with the new employees, six times in their first six months. I’d go round the room and I’d ask them all to say one thing. When they arrived the got a black book and in it they would write the stuff they found was strange, unusual, they’d seen done better. I remember my time as a student in my first house, they had a purple carpet and orange curtains, and I thought ‘why would anyone make those interior design choices?’ but after a while, you just don’t notice. So your new employees have this new view of your world that you and your managers no longer see. So sitting down and asking what was strange or odd is very useful for finding the stuff you can fix. Then also, you say to them it is your job to fix it – you spotted it, you fix it. You’re not allowed to come to lunch if you haven’t thought of something that doesn’t just make your life easier, it has to make everyone's life easier. And if anything happens in the intervening month, if it costs less than £100 and doesn’t just personally benefit you, because there are some rules around this, then do it, put it on expenses. It’s pre-approved. So stuff happens.

“It’s not my fault and I don’t care anyway.” This happens in lots of organisations where, for whatever reason, people feel blaming the customer or saying no is somehow the right thing to do. I don’t know why, but it feels as though, more people seem to be born like this than not – or maybe it’s just the way they went through school, or the companies they’ve worked in. At IT Lab we had to stop people just blaming BT, they would just lie on the phone to customers – “I’m sorry it didn’t happen, it was BT”. and I said “don’t do that – if it was BT then say it was BT, but if it was us just say it was us!” Just tell the truth. Because in fact, you can’t manage the problem for the customer unless you admit it is your fault, at that point you can do something, but if you blame somebody else you’re stuck. 

So one of the things we had at Rackspace was we gave the account managers, the people who interact with the customers everyday, and our model there was to bill clients a monthly recurring revenue. We gave the account managers the ability to give a credit to a customer of two times the monthly recurring revenue, without any management approval. It was just done. So every week we’d have a ‘Cut the Crap’ meeting where the account managers would sit down with me and we would go through the credits they’d given and we’d do a root cause analysis to find out what caused it, because I read this book called The Best Service is No Service by the first VP of Customer Service at Amazon, and he said, “You just have to obsess about what breaks and why people ring you, and get rid of the reasons for ringing you and get rid of the stuff that breaks.” How do you capture that, how do you make it? It is much better to give a credit than say no, I think. Of course the finance people have a canary, but ultimately it turns out to be better.

So some of the other stuff you’re trying to do. You’re trying to build management skills because no manager gets a job unless they can manage – but if you’ve never managed anybody how do we know you’re a manager and how do you get those skills? What you do is you come up with all of the things in the organisation that are important to the staff but frankly I couldn’t give a monkeys about, and so one of them is charity events. It's fantastic, but honestly it’s just not going to get on top of my list of things to do. So we have a charity committee, and they decide what charity we’re going to support, they decide who is on the team, somebody is a manager, they arrange events, they just do stuff. They turn up at the Town Hall meeting once a month and tell people what the committee is doing and asks if anyone wants to get involved. So somebody runs the committee and that’s a management position for someone without management responsibility. They’ve jumped out of planes, ran around the Isle of Wight, all sorts of stuff.

Some of the other things that show up in your organisation is people sleep in the office because something happens with a customer and they can’t go home because they’re not going to go home until it is fixed. Not that you want people to sleep in the office all the time. 

Misguided, the teen shopping site – at Peer1 when we took over them from Rackspace, on the day they went live with us they lost £100,000 that day because they could process a credit card transaction on their website but the order did not come out in the warehouse. So they had to do £100,000 of refunds on the Monday, on the Tuesday and on the Wednesday. By Friday we had got them down to £35,000 a day and that was because three guys slept in the office for 72 hours. So their CEO rang me up and said, “Dom, I think your staff care more about my business than my staff do, how do you do that?” Nobody asked them to, I didn’t make them, it wasn’t an order. It is just they decided that they cared about the customer. So it comes back to norms and beliefs and Town Hall, so what you would do is you would then talk about what behaviours you saw that were excellent in the organisation.

When we designed the office space of Peer1 we put this space in so we could have our Town Halls. This was reception, we didn’t have a receptionist, so we had tiered seating. I visited the offices of TED in New York and they had a similar set up, so we nicked the idea from there. We put all of our trophies from awards we’ve done in the back, which gave us some space. The other thing TED did is they had a camera in the ceiling so that when they did staff meetings they could broadcast them to multiple offices, and so we did the same thing. I would stand in front of this and then the London office and the French office could take part in the Town Hall staff meetings.

What happens in a Town Hall? Well, I get to speak about the financials, because transparency is important, I would do that for five minutes and then take any questions and then I’d sit down, because it is not about me. At IT Lab one of the things we did was a survey after every event so that every speaker got rated – again, some transparency, I was disappointed that I was never top rated speaker (but that’s because I’m competitive). I would get the team leaders to stand up and they would have to say five good news stories, no bad news allowed, and that’s all you’re allowed to say, once you’ve said your five quick things you sit down, you’re done. You also have to give a bottle of champagne to someone in another team who made it possible for your team to do their job better in the last month. It still takes an hour but there was lots of clapping.

One of the rituals would be a bit of team humiliation at the end. Any new starter would stand up and be introduced to the team. They would already of sent around something I stole from What If, a ‘ten things you don’t know about me’ which would go around before they started. This has happened to everyone who’s ever started here. I was employee #1, this is Jason who was employee #2. And we didn’t tell anybody what we were doing, what you’d have to do was you stand up at the end, say who you are, where you’re from, what do you do here and either sing a song or tell a joke. People would look at their colleagues and say ‘I can’t believe you didn’t tell me that this was going to happen to me!’ Nobody ever told them but it just became one of those rituals that binds the organisation together.

Here’s one of the other things that happened. The dishwasher was broken and someone went to the trouble of printing that out and putting it on the dishwasher, so somebody else wouldn’t say, “It’s broken, does anybody know?” It is just things like that, that just show up, that show the flywheel of culture is spinning and that people are doing the right things.

A monitoring screen, we’re a technology business we monitor loads of stuff. These screens were free. We went to the vendor and said, “We need some monitoring screens” and twisted their arm and we ended up with the monitoring screens. We wanted patio furniture and we got one of our vendors to sponsor our patio furniture and buy us some sofas for outside. We wanted some training so we rang our Cisco vendor and asked them, and they chipped in some money for the networking training. 

When you ask the staff what is important to them and not just important to me and I’ve got no money, I'll suggest ringing our vendors up. They’ll go off and they put time and effort into it.  At IT Lab, saving us from going bust, we came in at the weekend and repainted the office. 

This was a charity thing for Marwell Zoo to make Southampton a more interesting place to trudge around over the summer. Marwell Zoo put fiberglass animals all over Southampton, there were 26 of them and you could tick them off in a booklet. We put this rhinoceros outside of our office and it cost three grand. So I said, “I’m not sure if we have three grand but if you can raise £1500 I’ll match it.” Within weeks the charity committee had come up with something that got them £1500 and we got one. We were one of the few employers in Southampton on the circuit, so all part our local PR around who we were and what we did.

Ladies, this is a gents urinal. This is one in Shippal Airport and that is a fly in the porcelain. The guy who designed Shippal Airport use to be in the Dutch army and they used to paint a red dot in the army urinals. When you have them made in the UK you can actually have your competitors logo put in. We couldn't do that, so I then stole this idea. We had unisex toilets and it was really messy, the ladies complained that it wasn't as tidy as they would like. So we did this. If you put a ping pong ball in the toilet, gentlemen will aim at I because that’s just how they are wired, and then it’s much tidier. So that was my contribution!

What was it all about? We did the office space because we were trying to attract talent in Southampton, and in the first two weeks we opened we had film crews and journalists in the office. We had no WiFi because of BT, but that’s another story, so everybody actually worked from home for two weeks as they couldn’t work from the office. 

But the thing they did do was put in a pub. When did the office, we did ‘stop, start, continue’, I canvased the entire team and asked, “Think of our existing office space. What should we keep, what should we start doing and what should we get rid of?” It had about two-and-a-half thousand square feet of outside patio space. In my mind we were putting this Perspex windbreaker around it to make more use of it. But I didn’t go to the site meetings and in one of them they decided that idea was crap. They bought a pub on eBay and instead spent the money putting a pub in instead, because if it was important to me, I would find the money somewhere else. So I turned up one day, and they went, “we’ve put a pub in”. Where did you get the money for that? “Oh, yeah, we’re not putting the windbreak in.” We stocked the bar the first time with, y’know the green stuff you bring back from your holidays, then we had cocktail evenings where people would try to turn that into drinks.

This is one of my favourites from back at Rackspace. That is a memory chip from a server. People said that the staff awards are great but the award you get, that plastic shiny silvery thing on a fake wooden base is a bit uninspiring, not very fanatical. Someone said, “Look, we’ve got all these memory chips we send to the landfill, why don’t we turn them into awards? We’ll encapsulate it in perspex and use it as an award.”

So that was about how I get people to do their own thing within rules and I’ve been humbled and inspired by what the organisations I’ve worked with have come up with. 

I’m going to ask you a question about hiring. So please on your tables can you come up with the top five reasons why people shouldn't come and work for you? Then we’ll share.

What I would ask you to do now, is to go back to your teams and ask your teams to do this. They will find all of the reasons why things are broken in your organisation, that doesn’t make your organisation as attractive as it could be. Do it with your management team, do it with your staff team, see if you come up with the same answers. The flip side of that, is how do you tell that story to candidates so that the right people join you? In job ads the first third is probably bollocks about your company, the next third is the 110 things you need to work here, the 27 years experience, PHD, ten pounds an hour, there’s always a mismatch there. Then the last bit is the why you should come and work here. If you did that on a date you’d be on your own at coffee every single time. Your best employee is currently working for a competitor doing the job you want them to do and they’re doing it really well where they are. That’s just how life is. The last time we went through an economic boom like this, almost 40% of people in London changed jobs over a 10 year period. So if you think it's hard to hire now, your life is about to get two, three, four times more difficult because good people are hard to find. It’s not as if the economy booms and there are suddenly 20% great people. There’s still just 10% great people.

Do you have any dead wood in your organisation? Did you hire them like this? So what did you do to them?

I’ll finish with this. One of the things that will happen, is your employees or your future employees are on a journey, they have a life journey, that you went through in quick order at the beginning, and they want to join an organisation where they can make a difference. What they will do when they are deciding whether they want to work for you, because as Henry said at the beginning people join companies and leave managers. I’ve never interviewed anybody since social media was a thing who hasn’t looked me up on social media. – who hadn’t watched videos of me speaking, who hadn't looked at my LinkedIn profile, who hadn’t looked at what I tweeted recently, not once. People will look up your company on Glassdoor, they’ll just Google you. If you want people to join your organisation, your hiring managers need a profile which is not just about their CV, but that’s about your organisation. This is an opportunity to create a shop window for your organisation. 

The other thing I would say is make sure, if you’re trying to hire A players, that everyone who interviews them is an A player, because A players will not join an organisation if they are interviewed by a B player, because they will just infer that the rest of the organisation is like that.

Thank you very much.

The rub of this is that when you delegate, those people take on more responsibility and this is why this sort of process takes time because people are fearful, with good reason, of responsibility and triggers a sense of blame if you’re not used to it. You have to take time to build people’s confidence and I think that there’s a really important relationship between building trust and building loyalty. Having these two things in the organisation are really important. If you’re a senior, whether you’re a team manager, a director or the chief exec, you have to model taking responsibility and you have to show people that when push comes to shove, you will have their backs.

Dom describes the web-hosting industry as the internet equivalent of plumbing. It mightn’t sound scintillating, but he was able to make Rackspace and Peer 1 exciting places to work.

He avoided naming things like integrity, honesty, teamwork and efficiency as core company values. Not because they’re useless, but because every company claims to possess these things. He suggests finding something less abstract—something you can be explicit about—to better illustrate your organisation's unique composition.

Inserting more freedom into the workplace is a positive innovation—staff will be unhappy if they’re shackled with no room for self-expression. However, rules are still essential, says Dom. Consistency is required for effective operations; you still need to do the job you’re being paid to do. 

It’s a balancing act. Strictly following the rules rules out innovation and the threshold for productivity freezes. The trick, says Dom, is getting the staff to break the rules and breach conventions, which will generate new solutions for old problems. 

It takes more to engage staff than buying them an ice cream or giving them a pool table. If you want people to put in extra effort, you’ve got to implant a sense of loyalty that makes them want to do it. 

A sign of a great organisation is that the staff members care. Caring staff won’t be satisfied with quietly carrying out the tasks sufficient for holding down their jobs. Caring staff will want to improve and strengthen the entire organisation. This could just be cosmetic stuff—fixing dirty curtains or broken chairs—but it could also be cultural or managerial issues. 

In apathetic workplaces, people tend to absolve themselves of responsibility for problems they didn’t directly create. By contrast, if they feel empowered and have pre-approval, they’ll be inclined to get on top of this stuff as soon as it’s identified. 

What You Will Learn in This Video

  • The value of granting employees freedom within clear guidelines 

  • The meaning of "recruit for attitude, train for skill"

  • Why you should make your company values less abstract and more explicit 

  • By encouraging staff to break the rules, you’ll find new solutions for old problems

  • If your employees care, they won’t simply do the bare minimum to avoid getting fired

Related resources

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About Dominic

Dom has built the UK arms of two hosting businesses – Rackspace and Peer1 Hosting – from scratch to £30 million turnover. Rackspace and Peer1 Hosting have won awards for customer service and for being great workplaces. “I come to work each day prepared to be fired, to find people to help, to only work with the best, and to do any job that gets the project moving," he says. "Remember: it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.”

Next Conference: 2025 Happy Workplaces Conference

Our Happy Workplaces Conference is our biggest event of the year, and we'd love for you to join us on Wednesday 25th June!

Our 2024 event was our first ever hybrid event, and so we hope to run next year's in the same way. We will host up to 50 people face-to-face at Happy's HQ in Aldgate, London, and we can host up to 200 people online via Zoom. However you choose to join, there will be interaction, discussion, space for reflection and opportunities to network with others.

Stay tuned for full details of our speakers for next year's event. As always, our speakers share practical, hands-on ideas that you can implement to create happy and engaged workplaces.

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