My name is Simon and I like to grow things, and when I was younger I used to grow vegetables. And I did it for two reasons, I maybe didn’t have any friends, but also, I made profit from growing those vegetables and selling them to my neighbours. And as an adult, I grow companies. I’ve grown a recycling company from 3 to 100 people before I moved on to Just IT Training and Just IT Recruitment. And we’re 15 years old this year, so it’s our birthday, and I won’t ask you to sing Happy Birthday but it’s an emotional thing, growing a business, and I’ve loved it. But now I’m dedicating my future to helping people, individuals, reach their potential – supporting them into careers in technology because I think it’s a fantastic industry to grow in.
But it hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t always been easy. And I want to take you back in the last six years the challenges that I’ve faced, and how the Happy Manifesto has helped me to create a great business to work in, and also increase profits.
So back to 2010, we’d just gone through one of the most painful recessions, and it was a big crunch time for me. I was tired, I was frustrated, I didn’t really know where I was going in my business life. I felt I had more to give, I was too young to give up and go to the beach, so I had to do something different. My financial position wasn’t bad. This was the profit up to 2010, so it wasn’t a bad position, but it just wasn’t making me as happy as I could be.
So I went on holiday, and I read a book. [Relax: A Happy Business Story, by Henry Stewart, Cathy Busani and James Moran.] Anybody read that book? Good book, an easy read for holiday.
And I came back and I met a guy. Anyone met that guy?
And he told me about another book [the Happy Manifesto], he’s obviously a good salesman, and he said I should read that. And I loved the book, I thought it was a great book, I thought it was an easy to read book, and I loved the ideas like “creating a great workplace makes good business sense.” It seems so logical that happy people led to happy clients which gave more profit. We were talking earlier about the importance of the happy clients earlier on our table. So that’s the sort of logic that I actually saw at a Happy Manifesto Conference about two years ago, that employee happiness – customer happiness – increase sales – higher profits. It’s a sensible path.
So I found my direction, I found my goal. And my goal was going to end up with being a top 100 company to work for in the UK, as you now know. But what could be more fun than that?
So let me share that story.
So in 2011 I opened an Apprenticeship side of Just IT. I was a bit ‘sitting on the fence’, not really wanting to make a mistake. I think we all sort of feel at times we don’t want to make mistakes, but as we find out now we can celebrate mistakes, and we can actually learn so much more as human beings from doing that. So I went out there and decided I was going to celebrate a mistake if I made it, and I would invest in the Apprenticeship side of the industry. I always felt that young people, 16 to 18 year olds, perhaps wouldn’t do very well in IT, they perhaps wouldn’t turn up on time, that sort of thing, but actually they were fabulous. And this is an awards ceremony that we had at the British Computing Society, which we had government ministers at and a lot of young people had their parents, and we celebrated all things that were great about Apprenticeships. So clearly it was working well. And now of my turnover, about 50% of it is Apprenticeships. So just going outside of my comfort zone and realising that if I made a mistake I could celebrate it – that was a big thing for me.
In 2011, I also decided to focus on selecting managers who are good at managing. I moved a Sales Manager who was not doing so well because he didn’t care about people into another role, and I took this guy, a guy called Fran, who was a good salesperson but he did care about people, he was a great coach, and I moved him into a Sales Manager role. And hey presto!, a motivated sales team. So in fact, Fran is here today – Fran, could you stand up?
But I also needed a facilitator in the company to help engage my staff with the Happy Manifesto, and so Henry met a lady called Sarah. That’s Sarah, she’s very, very happy. That’s probably a bit blurred. And she helped create a group, and this group met and talked about the concept of the book and really applied the ideas to practical things that made staff engaged with the Just IT cause.
My main aim was really “making people feel good,” which we talked earlier about and that’s really an essential part I think of what we should be going to work for.
One example of that is the benefits package that we introduced. The group felt that our benefits package was poor and so we implemented a new one. It covers everything from half a day off to give blood, or perhaps they want a day I don’t know, a day off to support their chosen charity, private healthcare, sabbaticals, even lunch with me on a regular basis (that’s a benefit!), and company events, big events, that we host on the River Thames and other places to celebrate our success and recognise individuals with awards to make them feel good about working in the company.
In 2012, I also realised that if I was going to follow through with the concepts of the Happy Manifesto, I was going to have to “enable people to work at their best.” I felt I’d reached my potential at managing teams. I needed new people who were stronger than me, I needed great people managers. I’m entrepreneurial, I’m a bit wacky, but perhaps I don’t have the strengths in management that I needed to grow this team. So I employed a new MD, Lee, I gave him twice the salary I’ve ever paid anyone in my life, and I also gave him a share in the company based on results. I went completely out of my comfort zone, and my recruitment business since then has completely doubled in size.
I also employed a person who was as passionate about Apprenticeships as I am. That’s a lady called Dee, and she’s done a great job with Lee. I gave them freedom within clear guidelines, I’ve set their profit goals, and they’ve gone out there to create a great business. I’ve also employed a good Financial Director to make sure he counts the money, because I wasn’t very good at that either.
But I also needed a new workplace to take people to work in. So I invested twice the amount of money I’ve ever have done in offices which have got air conditioning and toilets that work. And that’s St Claire’s House in Tower Hill, where we work at the moment. It’s now full of people.
Then in 2013, just following through the book – open and transparent. I set up an open form where we get all our staff to come along and ask questions, whatever it might be, that I can answer and make sure they feel informed and involved, and this way I was on my way to creating an unbeatable teams. I’d been running surveys each six months, those surveys were showing me what we need to do, what we could do better, and it was a good way of embracing this concept of ‘evolvement’. We kept applying those ideas, simple ideas, not complicated ideas, and that kept engaging people better.
We moved towards more open salaries where possible, and it’s interesting with Gore how they’ve done that. We’re still struggling with that piece, but we do now have much more clarity with salaries so people can see how they can move up their ladder.
In 2014, the Happy Manager actually resigned, so you see it doesn’t always work out as you want to, and you can’t win them all. But I started to network with more interesting people. My Bank Manager, I said “I don’t want any service from you, I just want you to introduce me to inspiring people in interesting places.” And he introduced me to a business leader, and he said I should invest more in marketing. So here’s our Marketing Manager Justin, and he’s here today I think, and he’s embraced the concepts behind the Happy Manifesto. In fact I’ve given out about 400 copies of the book to people who come for interviews. So I always think you need to be different in life – how many people give out the Happy Manifesto to interviewees? Anybody? There you go, well done, congratulations.
But Justin embraced the ideas, he introduced a brilliant [staff] newsletter, every two weeks we run a very entertaining newsletter, including a picture of a [featured] pet, so we can celebrate our home life as well as our home life. And he really got our engagement with our customers as well, we introduced a lot of social engagement and we do a lot of things to really make people feel part of a family. I would say the family culture at Just IT is one that’s really important to me.
But staff churn is tough, and in that year we were finding people leaving, probably a third of people leaving, and that was distressing for me.
I’m used to a small team, and here I’ve got a big team, but I’ve made a commitment to Henry and other people that I was going to follow through the Happy Manifesto. So I consistently celebrated our mistakes, and we continued to work towards recruiting for attitude and training for skills. So we introduced in our second stage interview, two or three hour session where they sit with the department and they get to know the team that they might well work with, and that’s worked very well for us.
Keep learning, keep developing – that’s the game. And we’ve introduced much more learning and development to our company. We’re still a new company really, so we can still do things better, but one of the reasons people say they like coming to Just IT is they’re always learning.
So, continuing to make mistakes, we evolved, and one of the things I find is that we sometimes get ‘energy vampires’.
Anyone got any energy vampires in their business? Yes? So I suggest you get rid of them, you can stab them through the heart, but they do suck a lot from you. And I think we owe ourselves and we owe them the opportunity to find a company or a graveyard where they’re much happier. So look out for the energy vampires, because you will find them lurking in dark corners.
As we came towards the end of 2014, we were finding we had got rid of some of these energy vampires, and our survey was showing some better results. We find ourselves at a stage where we could apply to be audited as a Top 100 company to work for, and the survey they did and the application we did was a great learning opportunity for us. The first year round we were Outstanding, but we learnt from that and we kept moving forward. And then we also applied for the Just IT Recruitment company as a Great Place to Work. So there’s two great organisations out there which you can embrace and actually be judged against. And it only cost about £1500 and it’s a really good idea.
I really empowered three senior managers, Lee, Justin and Fran, to go out there and do whatever they had to do with the teams to get us at the Great Place to Work or Top 100 Companies. I just wanted to see the results. We gave them freedom within clear guidelines.
We also invested in 2015 in a new database to allow staff to see how they were doing. If they were doing a great job, we praised them, if they weren’t, we gave them training and moved them on. It’s important to set freedom within clear guidelines with good KPIs. For us as a sales company, we’ve got lots of KPIs that people have on the walls and on the whiteboards around their walls, and it means we can really recognise when people do well.
We also make sure that all our support staff have clear objectives every quarter, which are Specific Measurable Realistic And Time Dependent, and we give a bonus, every member of staff has a bonus for meeting their objectives, and these objectives align together – so we again feel as a family.
So this last year we’ve been engaging more with the community and creating mutual benefit. I’m delighted to say we raised £20,000 for the Alzheimer’s Society, which is the best we’ve ever done, and we’ve introduced dress down Fridays, having Bake Offs that even Mary Berry would be proud of, and jumping out of aeroplanes. This whole initiative around community and interaction has been a really good part of the company.
But one of the challenges I have within the book is “love work, get a life.” I’m obsessive. I don’t know how many people here are obsessive out there, or is it just me? Just me? But I tend to focus too much on business. But this year I’m pleased to say I’m taking some holidays, and going on a sabbatical next February which will be great. So that’s all good stuff.
So reflecting back on the five years, are we a happy company? Well, we now have 125 – 130 staff, and 98% say they’re happy so that’s great news. Are we a profitable company? Well this is the last five years – the profits have increased to a good position, a 60% increase in the last year, so I’m not complaining about that. Are we a Top 100 Company, Henry? Yes, we are! And that was a great situation, I was crying at that point. Are we a great place to work? Yes we are! So as Henry said, we did the double.
So what’s ahead of us? Well, I’m not complacent. For the next three years we’ve introduced a 1 2 3 plan. “Keep it simple,” somebody said once. We’re striving to provide clear strategy and targets for all of our staff that they can buy into. We are continuing to embrace the Happy Manifesto, you could ship me another 200 books if you want Henry!, and so we’ve put the Top 100 concept and the Happy Manifesto at the centre of Just IT.
We’ll continue to make decisions and celebrate mistakes, being innovative wherever we can, and we’ll continue to focus on our staff – listening to them, empowering them and trusting them. We’ll keep playing to people’s strengths, we mentioned this earlier, rather than their weaknesses, and for me, I’ll continue to set good standards and not drink too much Pinot Griot!
So we also have profit goals as well. I couldn’t end this talk about profit without showing you a graph. It is a forecast, and the managers are deeply rewarded for this if they’ve achieved over the next three years. So you’ll have to invite them back in three years’ time and ask them if they achieved this growth. But you can see the expectations for them in the next three years!
Please feel free to talk to my colleagues, to call me if you want to know more about recruiting IT apprenticeships or taking on IT people or creating a happy place to work.
What questions have you got?
Q: Thanks, I enjoyed your talk. I was just wondering if you could give us some examples of how you celebrate mistakes across the company. Do you have certain initiatives or things like that which you do?
Well we used to have a large poster which celebrated mistakes from different people. We don’t do that at the moment. So I think that’s really a personal thing, I think once you get your head round it and say ‘you can make a mistake’ or my staff can make a mistake, that takes the pressure off their shoulders. But I think what we could do is bring back that presentation which actually gives examples, and I wrote down this idea of having an award each year for the best mistake, and I think that’s really a good idea. But to be honest, all we’re saying is “do make mistakes and do share them when you make mistakes so that I could do more.”
Q: Great speech, I always enjoy listening to you talk, and we’re also going on a journey of trying to implement the Happy Manifesto. We’ve come from a public sector environment and many of our staff, now that we’re an independent company have grasped the concept, are thrilled by it, are saying “we wish we’d had this said to us many years ago because this is exactly where I want to be,” and a large minority are scared shitless by it, and “I never came into work to think for myself or be innovative and creative, that’s not why I’m here, you tell me what to do.” And we’re struggling to get the critical mass through and those who ain’t never going to get it out. Did you experience that, and what did you do about it?
We’re still experiencing it, it’s five years at least that this has been going on, and this is my fourth conference and I’m looking forward to the next four as well. So I don’t think it happens overnight. You’ve only been doing this for how long?
Q: Two years.
Simon: Two years. Gore – how long?
John Housego: 58 years.
So I think these things, they’re innovative, they’re challenging, they’re challenging to control freaks like me, and they’re challenging to staff. But I think they’re things that make sense. I can’t help but feel that investment company are feeling good about themselves, and I think that it works for the staff. So I just think we have to give it time. It takes time. And coming to these sorts of events and being refreshed and being given the positive energy to go out there and make those changes, even if you only do three every three months, it soon evolves a great business to work in. I hope that answers your question.