Let’s Get Real On Empowering Our People

In: BlogDate: May 15, 2020By: Billy Burgess

Over the last couple of years, Happy has undergone a transformation. Why? Because as chief happiness officer Henry Stewart revealed at the beginning of his talk at the 2019 Happy Workplaces Conference, Happy was losing a lot of money.

Assessing the financial downturn, Henry and his leadership team realised they’d lost sight of some core principles. So instead of cutting things and getting more hierarchical, the turnaround was made possible by revisiting their core principles and acting in accordance. 

One thing that Henry decided to do is make no decisions. Find out why in this video.

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Let’s Get Real On Empowering Our People

How many Chief Happiness Officers do we have in the room? Do we have any others? No? How many could we have in the room, then? How many’d like to be a Chief Happiness Officer? Excellent. You can become one. People occasionally contact me on LinkedIn and say, ‘How do I become a Chief Happiness Officer?’ and I say ‘you make yourself one.’ There’s now one at Intel there’s one at Microsoft. There’s all sorts of [CHOs] around the place.

So, Happy. I’m going to tell you an interesting story, because actually a couple of years ago Happy wasn’t doing so well. And I’m going to tell you about the transformation that’s happened in Happy the last couple of years. A couple of years ago we were losing a hell of a lot of money. There was actually a danger that we might run out of money and go bankrupt. We, in one year, went from £185k loss to £166k profit.

How did we do that? When making that kind of loss the normal business reaction is to clamp down, cut things, get more hierarchical. What we realised was we had lost some of our principles. We weren’t fully implementing the ideas in the book, the ideas that we were actually training other people to do. So what we did over those couple of years was basically go back to our core principles and put them into place and we’re seeing the effect that that can have.

Who knows this guy? [Refers to image of a bespectacled man next to a submarine]. Who’s seen the David Marquet video? A few of you, OK. I’m going to show the first bit of it, because one thing that I decided I would do is make no decisions. Let me explain where this came from.

[Video audio]: ‘I was trained for one submarine. My guys were trained to do what they were told. That’s a deadly combination. We all know organisations where people just follow the leader into disastrous situations. So I got my guys together and I said, “Hey we’ve got a problem here. I was trained for another submarine. You were trained to do whatever nonsense comes out of my mouth.” They already knew, I was pretty much talking to myself.

‘So I said, “What are we going to do guys?” and we talked about it. What I really wanted to do was get ready for the inspection, but we were sitting in the board room, we spent a couple of hours, we were talking about it and we came up with all these different things. They said, “Well, captain, you’ve just got to be smarter. You got to give better orders.” I was like, “Well, how am I going to learn a whole nuclear submarine? I spent a year learning Olympia. Two weeks over here. So in a year we’ll be safe? That’s not going to work.” We had to deploy the submarine in six months.

‘So we talked about it and they said, “OK. There’s only one logical solution. We figured it out. You shut up.” What do you mean? That’s not what captains of nuclear submarines do. They walk around, they give orders, they sound like Russell Crowe. Right? And I thought about it and you know what? They were right. So at that point I vowed never to give another order and if you came down to my submarine, it’d have been very confusing. It’d have been hard to say who’s the captain here, because you wouldn’t have seen me giving orders.

‘I did retain one order. The final order to launch a weapon, a torpedo or a missile, I kept with me because I felt that since that was going to result in the deaths of other human beings, I didn’t want that on anyone’s conscience but mine. That was my moral and ethical responsibility.

‘In the Navy there’s long lists that say the captain has to authorise, the captain should authorise. You got a couple of nukes in your group they’ll tell you it’s true. Submerge the ship, get under way, start up the reactors – on and on and on, pages of these things. I just refused to give those orders. What we replaced it with was intent. Instead of giving instructions… if you want your people to think, don’t give instructions, give intent.’

It’s worth watching this. There’s a bit more of it. But that submarine went from being an underperforming submarine to the best performing submarine in US Navy history. At last year’s conference you may have heard somebody talk about how at B&Q they challenged two of the store managers to make no decisions for three months. Every single KPI rose and people talked about how they started enjoying coming to work. And the managers became far less stressed and were no longer ringing back from holiday and these kinds of things.

Is Kevin Rogers here? He’s from a healthcare charity called Paycare in Wolverhampton where he decided to do it at the beginning of this year having read my blog. The first quarter was the best performing quarter in ten years and he’s now asking his next level down to do the same thing; to make no decisions.

When I look at other organisations I often think the problem is at the top. Would you agree? How many people think the problem – it’s difficult if some of you are CEOs – is at the top in your organisation? It came to a point where I had to wonder could that even be true of Happy?

I did an exercise a couple of years ago where I asked people, ‘what are all the things you don’t do because you assume I wouldn’t like you to?’ Even though I may not give many orders and I hope I’m not hierarchical or command and control, I suddenly realised there were dozens of things – many of which I’d never suggested or would actually like them to do in many cases – which people were not doing because they assumed I wouldn’t want them. So you have to consciously step out in many ways. It isn’t enough to not be the tyrant; you have to step out in many ways.

So I decided to make no decisions and it led to 26% increase in sales and a move from loss to profit. So my question to you is, particularly if you’re a manger, could you aim to make no decisions? And he did allow an exception, what was his exception? Launching the missiles. So would you have an exception? Discuss in pairs.

I should point out I am talking about your role as a manager. I’m not saying you should have nobody making decisions in the organisation. That wouldn’t be sensible. So the questions is, how can we get the decisions made where the knowledge is?

So the four things that we did: we got people to play to their strengths; we sought joy at work; we got rid of appraisals and replaced them with the check-in that Cathy showed. Another thing we did… this is John Housego who is from Gore and he was at our conference three years ago and somebody asked him a question. Gore is famously non-hierarchical, people choose their managers, they decide each other’s salary and these kind of things. So somebody asked him, John, how do people get promoted at Gore? And his answer was they take on extra responsibilities. At Gore, if you want to be a leader, you have to find some followers because nobody’s going to appoint you for anything.

So when our managing director left two years ago, we decided not to replace him. Instead we said to people, ‘we all know what he used to do, if you want to take on one of these responsibilities, go for it.’ And what happened was half of what he did lots of people took on and about half of what he did nobody did. And it didn’t seem to make a difference.

I’m in no way blaming him for that, because I had a very interesting chat with [a leader from] one of the best workplaces where they said, ‘You’ve got to avoid having too many managers, because if you employ managers they do manager-things rather than doing the roles that need to be done.’

So that was one thing we did. Another thing is job ownership. Can you get the people in your company to each own something so that the manager doesn’t have to make the decisions? So the example I normally give is pricing: John and Ben decided to change prices and that was their decision because they own that. Other people are responsible for other things. Ideally every decision in a company should be owned by somebody. So then they can make the decisions, maybe after consulting people, after taking advice, rather than it having to go up to a manger. Does that make sense?

The other thing we did, we were completely transparent about what the situation was at all times, and I explained it through a Lego game. There’s a Lego game I play where we explains sales, overhead and profit, so that’s it’s absolutely clear to everybody how the finances work. Because not everyone understands, so make it clear to people so that everybody has that knowledge. One of my favourite quotes is, ‘without information you can’t take responsibility. With information you can’t avoid responsibility.’

Is anybody here involved in training as a provider? The key metric in the training business is trainer utilisation. How much of your trainers time has been spent actually delivering training? How does it relate to the income from those courses? So in the past they’ve been producing reports every three months from somebody responsible for reports and giving them to the trainers and it wasn’t having much effect. So the one thing that I asked for was that every month, each trainer produce the metrics on their utilisation. And it went into a Google spreadsheet so that everybody could see everybody else’s.

We didn’t set a target, I didn’t say what it should be, I just asked them to produce that information. The result of that was that trainer utilisation, the percentage of the income of a course that goes on the trainer went from 43% to 29%. If you’re running a self-managing organisation, the chaotic approach is that everybody just does what they feel like and aren’t particularly accountable. The guidelined approach is that everybody’s clear what the clear metrics are. If they’re clear what the key metrics are and what needs to be happening, they’ll make the right decisions.

So, I want to be completely open. One little tip we got from somebody who runs a college in East London was they invited the trade union reps to be on their board. And they found that the effect of that was they got a much better sense of what the frontline staff felt so that when they were about to do something stupid and the trade union people said, ‘Hang on a moment,’ they made that mistake in the meeting rather than to 10,000 people.

So we now invite people to come to our strategy group. We invite anybody to come to that and share all of the minutes so that everybody’s clear and open. So those are the kinds of changes we made, basically at every point in the company saying, ‘What would actually be the Happy Manifesto approach?’

Oh, and beware of hippos, yes? Anybody know what this means? What’s a hippo? Yeah, beware of the highest paid person’s opinion. There’s a lovely story from Google where this is a major slogan, they put it on notice boards and things. I think it was Sergey Brin, one of the two co-founders, who was having a meeting with the engineers about how to improve AdWords. He had this great idea of how to improve AdWords and put it to the engineers, about 30 of them, and they said, ‘Nah. We don’t like that idea, we’ve got this idea.’

So he said, ‘OK, how about if you do your idea, but you just have two engineers to work on my idea because I think my idea’s a great idea.’ And they discussed it and they said, ‘No. We don’t think it’s a good idea at all. We’re not going to put engineers on it. We’ll do it our way.’

Now, how many companies would that kind of thing happen in where the co-founder, the boss of the company cannot get their way? I don’t know if I’ve got there yet, but I think there’s a very fine group of people who do get overridden in that way and it’s a very positive thing if it happens – if your staff are so aware to be wary of the highest paid person’s opinion that they will override it. Because they’re at the frontline and they normally know what’s best. Make sense?

The core of this is do you trust your staff? That’s the core of this whole approach. And the question there is how would your organisation be different if everyone was fully trusted? Now there’s a separate question of how you get to that point – maybe you’re at the point where they need some development to get there, but how would your organisation be different from what it is now if everybody was fully trusted? Discuss with your neighbour.

How many people feel they work for an organisation where everyone is fully trusted? OK. That was three. How would it be different? Anybody?

Conference delegate 1: ‘Things would get done quicker.’

Yep, things would get done quicker. Anything else? Less fear. Make better decisions. Can we get there, can we get to where people are fully trusted? How many people are going back with some ideas that will enable them to get a bit further down the road?

On your table my colleagues have just put eight ideas for a happy workplace. How many people have seen this document before? One or two, excellent. What I want you to do is, individually, I would you to go through this and tick three that you would like to do. Some of them you might be doing already, some of them you might not want to do. I want you to go through, spend a minute ticking three that you’d like to do and then share them with a neighbour.

Everybody, what did you come up with? Who found something they would like to do?

Conference delegate 2: ‘So, we’re about to move offices. There’s a couple in here around giving your people a small amount of money to try and make the office space a bit better and bringing food and stuff in. But hopefully when we do move offices, we can really make the space a much nicer space to work in than where we currently are.’

OK, we’re coming to near the end of the conference. Somebody made a nice comment to me in the break. She said, ‘I suddenly realised this happy thing, it’s a movement isn’t it?’ That’s definitely how I like to see it. Do you think we’ve got movement? Our aim is to create a world in which a happy workplace is the norm and not the exception. Sarah thought five years, didn’t you, or maybe ten? We’ll see if we can get there.

Two last things. We’re about to feedback but before you do that, again can you just look through your books and think with a neighbour what are a couple of things you will go away and do in the next week as a result of what we’ve gone through today? It might be an idea that’s come up in the conference, it might be a random idea that’s come into your head.

OK, again, quick-fire, one or two things you’re going to do. Anybody? Look at the appraisal process. Let’s get rid of it, yes? Any others? Hands up if you’re going to go away and do at least a couple of things? OK then, what are they? Tell me?


Henry took inspiration from David Marquet, a leadership expert and former commander of the nuclear-powered submarine, USS Santa Fe. He played a clip of Marquet explaining how he agreed to stop giving orders on the submarine. Marquet flouted the stipulation that captains must give final authorisation for everything. Well nearly everything – he retained authority over the final order to launch a torpedo or a missile. What’s the logic behind this? As Marquet says: “If you want your people to think, don’t give instructions, give intent.”

Whenever Henry looked at other organisations, he generally determined the problem to be at the top. It was only a matter of time before he considered whether that might be true of Happy as well. Henry specifically designed Happy to not be a hierarchical, command and control workplace. However, he recognised that many things were not being done because of an assumption he’d disapprove.

“You have to consciously step out in many ways,” he said. “It isn’t enough to not be the tyrant; you have to step out.” After consciously stepping out, Happy saw a 26% increase in sales and a move from loss to profit.

Of course, there was a little more to it than Henry just going mute. The aim was to have the decisions made where the knowledge is. Four things went into making this happen. Firstly, said Henry, they got people to play to their strengths, to seek joy at work, and they got rid of appraisals and replaced them with [a four-monthly] check-in. The second thing was that instead of replacing a departing managing director, they invited everyone to take on extra responsibilities.

The third was job ownership. “Ideally every decision in a company should be owned by somebody,” said Henry. “So then they can make the decisions, maybe after consulting people, after taking advice, rather than it having to go up to a manager.”

Finally, they made sure everyone was kept up to date on the situation. Not only were they completely transparent, but the information was communicated in a way (via a Lego game) that everyone could understand.

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About Henry

Henry is founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Happy Ltd, originally set up as Happy Computers in 1987. Inspired by Ricardo Semler’s book, Maverick, Henry has built a company that's won multiple awards for providing some of the best customer service in the country and being one of the UK’s best places to work.

His first book, Relax, was published in 2009. His second book, The Happy Manifesto, was published in 2013 and was short-listed for Business Book of the Year.

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