What Makes Foundation SP an Award-Winning Great Place to Work

In: BlogDate: Jul 27, 2021By: Billy Burgess

Simon Grosse is the CEO of Foundation SP, a company he co-founded in 2012. Right from the get-go, he wanted FSP to be a compelling, genuine and authentic place to work. 

Speaking at the 2017 Happy Workplaces conference, Simon explains the company's ethos is to care about people and try to extract each individual’s unrealised potential. They do this by prioritising empowerment, autonomy and freedom.

Watch Simon's full talk below.

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What Makes Foundation SP an Award Winning Great Place to Work

Thanks for the intro, Henry, and also thank you for holding such an interesting day. I think every single presentation this morning and this afternoon has been really enthralling and the thing I really like about is it’s very real. Aren't we all just sick of the bullshit right now? Coming through the election, bad news, everything. So it’s really nice to come together with a bunch of people that care in terms of what we’re doing. What I'm gonna do today is talk to you a little bit about Foundation SP.

I am Simon Grosse. I am the CEO of Foundation SP. As Henry kindly introduced us, we won great place to work and funnily enough I got connected with Henry about a year ago. We entered the first time to Great Place to Work: Small Business about eighteen months ago and we were the winners of Small Business and we picked up a couple of special awards around Trusted Leadership and Employee Voice.

We’re in the technology space. We build technology solutions in supports of collaborations we do a lot of stuff with Sharepoint, Yammer, Onedrive, Teams, all this Microsoft stuff. So that’s what we do we bring that stuff to life so actually this stuff around people and change is real interest in terms of what we peak to our clients about. We only founded the company five years ago. Really it was about how do we make, in the early stages, a really compelling, genuine, authentic place to work?

So I got sent a book in the post. Two and a half years ago, I took it to Mexico. I read it and I had loads of scribbles all over the book. I didn’t contact Henry for eighteen months. When we won great place to work I thought, ‘What’s the right thing to do here?’ So I just dropped him a note on LinkedIn to say, “Henry, we’ve not met before, but I read your book and we’ve been implementing all of these things and more.” We did a bunch of other things like investing in people, external coaching, a lot of reading about what we needed to do. That was my opening piece. It was just a thank you in terms of the journey and I think all of us in the roo are on a journey in some way.

Three years ago, I was asked a very pertinent question. It was about how you survey your staff. I was the guy that went, “Why would we want to do that? It’s all that soft stuff. I know, I know by how it feels.” Wrong! So we went on a journey for quite a while to think about all of these different things. I was the guy who, probably two years ago, was still very cynical about why? Why would we want to do this. So when we talk about some of the challenges of the CEO or the businesses that you work for or have worked for and I know that not everyone is not necessarily in a commercial business. We’ve got people from government and not for profit organizations. But those people that are cynical why are the cynical? Are they cynical because they're bad people. Probably not are they cynical because they don't see the link between how you make great culture and great performance? I think that’s probably it.

In my mind I see two camps. At one end of the spectrum we have: ‘Hey, we love culture, we love people, let's have a hug, lets high five, let's do some really forward thinking stuff.’ Sometimes that never gets out to the business and at the other end of the spectrum you have people who care about one thing and one thing only, which is: numbers, profit, revenue growth, annuity - because they probably own the business, they report to shareholders and that’s their currency.

What do we believe at foundation SP; what do I believe? What was my journey and what’s FSP’s. We believe it starts with our ethos. What is our ethos? We care about people. I’ve always cared about people. But we really care about people and we believe in the unrealised potential that some people have. I think most people want to be good people, we really believe in people and we believe in values. We believe in the things we’ve spoken about today. We believe in empowerment, autonomy and freedom to do the role. Actually we see technology as a great enabler but we the people side of things as being important.

Ethos

Great Leadership Employee Experience Client Experience

=Sustainable High Performance

Does everyone know what leading measures and lag measures are? So say I want to lose weight. What are the leading measures to losing weight? More around more and eat less. What is Great Leadership? A purpose, a vision, values clearly outlined through the entire organisation. Encouraging continuous learning, being a good person, being authentic, being credible and having great communication. The employee experience we offer is a leading measure to success. Two thirds of organisations have disengaged employees, the first two years as a CEO I was unconsciously incompetent. What we did after was embrace a different way and there were two compelling reasons our business had to change.

Number one: personal reasons. When I lost my dad, I thought, ‘Stop being a twat. Stop striving for numbers all the time. Be a good person, care about people more,’ so I had my epiphany as a leader at that point nearly three years ago.

The second thing that happened was that a Sales Director acting like a Sales Director is not a good CEO. That was my reason to change. Now when I look at it, we’re award-winning; but if I look at from a ROI perspective, we were making £150k e-bit profit three years ago, we’re gonna make £600k this year. It speaks for itself: times four and a half nearly.

We believe that by focusing on great leadership, employee experience and client experience—these things have a great relationship with each other. A happy person at work is going to transmit that through [to the customer]. So we’ve de-focused from chasing revenue and profit. We have three key goals in our company:

● Being an award-winning employer
● Offer award-winning client services
● Our profit number

I care about profit. I’m ambitious; I want to achieve good things but I see it was being an enabler by focusing on employee and client experience. I’ve had three or four conversations about, “How do I get my organisation to change?” You have to tune into the things that they care about.

I’m going to share three or four experiences about what we’ve done. Henry said to me, “What’s the number one thing in your organisation that you’ve changed?”

Values

Family Success Passion

Values. We didn’t have any values previously. Let’s take the Enron saga from a few years ago; a massive corruption case in the US. Do you know what their values were? Integrity, excellence, communications, and respect. Fail, fail, fail, fail. And it’s all a load of rubbish—if you don’t live those values. How important is your family? The number one thing. How can I extend that, other than being ultimately respectful to our staff’s families? No one misses a Nativity; no one misses a Sports Day; no one’s gonna miss any form of urgent situation. They don’t even need to ask me; they just do it.

Is it also the way we operate professionally in high performance teams and collaborations? Our FSP family—I didn’t create that term, but everyone hashtags FSP Family now internally, because they feel connected to it. We have the spirit of operating like a family or like a sports team, but that’s really important: high-performance collaboration. Success for us is about success for our business, for every individual who works for FSP, our clients, our partners, and our community.

It’s not just selfish “let me take as much as I can get.” It’s “let me look overall at what success in a win-win-win-win?” If it’s just for me—hey, guys, come on board; it’s gonna make me a millionaire—they don’t care. So it’s tuning in the things that are important for people. We did a values exercise for the leadership team. Eight people in London, one room, spent half a day doing it. We took a long list of 50 values and we cut them to our three top values as people. Then we worked out why people had the values they had.

Does everybody know what their personal values are? Could you say them, top three, if you needed to? I couldn’t. I knew what I stood for as a person: family’s really important to me and some other stuff, but actually I got real clarity because I went through a personal values realisation exercise - really, really powerful. Then what you do is, with your team, you’re building trust and a little bit of vulnerability. If you think about the things that are most deep rooted inside you - why? Why do you have that value? You think back to your childhood, to things that are ultimately important to you.

We had to ensure that our organisation and the people within it were reflective, that they can work well together, but they don’t need to be the same. If you work for an organisation like us that values family, success, and passion; as long as your values aren’t anti-family, anti-success, and anti-passion, and they compliment themselves—that’s a good thing. The value side of things is so important. We don’t have anybody that’s anti-passion in our family anymore; they’ve gone, because we hold people to account on our values now.

This whole premise of “soft, great culture” - actually, there’s a flipside to that which is, if you define your values - and we have a charter which defines the associated values; it’s really powerful. Certainly gets rid of the bad eggs, and is really motivating for those people who want to work and to live their values.

Closely linked with values is what we do in the community. We’re actually based in the Reading Enterprise Centre on the University Campus. We get loads of opportunities to engage with students through enhancements, learning, and mentoring days. We also have a very special alignment with a local charity in Berkshire that provide care for children that are terminally ill. We started this relationship two years ago and that has become very meaningful for staff. It’s an open opportunity; we’re not forcing it down their throats, we’re not saying, ‘You work for FSP, you must support this charity’, no, we’re saying that there’s a bunch of opportunities here because we care about our wider community. We care about you; we’re all family here, and there are some families that are not as lucky as you. They’ve got a bad deal and we want to help.

So we enable people to do volunteering, fundraising, ad hoc work, just to help out occasionally. Now the team at Alexander Devine Children’s Hospice are building Berkshire’s first dedicated children’s hospice. They come to us like we’re part of their extended team and vice versa, which is really great. When we celebrate our fifth birthday on July 3rd, every single pound that we earn as fees and deliver as fees on that day, we’ve decided we’re gonna donate to them. I think we’re gonna raise probably at least £15k on that day and everybody feels great about that, because they know they can come to work, we’re gonna have a laugh, we’re gonna have some fun, they can feel part of something, and what a great cause it is.

My point isn't that you must have a charity that you work with. Every organization is going to have a different feel, my point is how meaningful that has been for people. We’ve had individual success stories that have been quite emotional for people. When introverts who wouldn't necessarily be out there doing what I’m doing right now, who’ve been doing some great work behind the scenes have been very very touched by the feedback they’ve received saying thank you, from a charity. Personal visits things that mean something to people. Rather than just feeling we’re in a rat race chasing numbers the whole time.

Employee voice has come up a fair bit today so I’m gonna sort of tell you a little bit about what we do. In terms of listening to employees and I think in part of Louise’s session, which foo her was less about technology and more about people and I kind of agree with that to a level. I think because we have a technology background—I was speaking to Joe, he was using TINYpulse. TINYpulse is a much more regular interval way of knowing how people feel as an engagement platform, so rather than doing annual or bi-annual surveys you get a weekly question: how happy are you at work? We have actually had one since we’ve been here: On a scale of one to ten do you believe in the authenticity of your company?

Employee Voice

Pulse feedback & happiness
Operational rhythm
Transparency & openness
Ideas & co-creation
Measure happiness & assess feedback
Constant & consistent
Varied channels for feedback & praise
Empower & enable leadership
Support & promote change

All the time, this stuff is linked back to Net Promoter Score it gives you a score out of ten as to how people are feeling and it gives people the opportunity to give ideas online. But what we also do, if you’re an executive or a director in your company and you don’t do this, staff around tables has been really impactful for us. If you exist in a different role, try and convince one of your executive team to do staff roundtables.

What do I mean? What we do is we get together in groups of six to ten people that don’t typically work together everyday and we pick a theme and we say, hey, we’re going to talk about client experience. It could be: what does it mean? What could we do better? How are we doing against these things? It might be that we talk about our brand. Then we realise that, every single day, we are influencing all these different types of people.

The reason why staff roundtables are very important to our organisation is it has a very flat layer of communication between people that are directors and owners of a business and staff that don’t technically work together everyday. My advice would be that you don’t start these things with an open book and say, “Hey, how are you, anything you’d like to change?” Those things can get a bit random because then you get into things like what coffee you buy. But if you can link it to a big theme, people have generally fed back that they find those kind of things are really really helpful.

Certainly as a business leader, it’s been massive for us because we’ve seen some great suggestions that have come up that have been co-created things like creating a client portal, changing the office environment; things that I wouldn't have even thought of that, all of a sudden, people come up with an idea that gets some momentum and people go off and do them. What we do, as per the guidelines as in Happy’s manifesto, is we give them guidelines; we give them parameters, and sometimes it fails. Sometimes we say we’re not going to do it, sometimes someone will come up with a good idea and I’ll say, “Sounds great, but not yet - for this reason.” So we might give them a budget, we might give them a time scale, we might ask if they can get other people involved.

For feedback and praise, we do stuff on TINYpulse; we’ve got a social network, which is Yammer. It’s an online social network. For anyone who doesn’t know what Yammer is, it’s like an internal corporate Facebook but what you get with that is a lot of innovation, you get people talking about what they’re doing today, you get people sharing ideas. Basically you get a thread of working out loud. Actually all these youngsters coming through that we were talking about earlier - they’re much more into that kind of space as well. We’ve got lots of different channels for feedback and praise. Some are online and some are face-to-face. The reason why I think online ones are really great is that of our forty staff, we’ve got a lot of introverts believe it or not. We’ve got a lot of technical people, a lot of consultants, so they prefer online channels for giving feedback. If you go and ask them face-to-face, they’re not as confident about giving that feedback.

Let’s just say you get these weekly questions, you get suggestions coming through, you have to act on them as a leadership team. Part of our weekly operational leadership team is to review every piece of feedback, so I can promise them that we will read it and we will take action. Because if I go, ‘Do you know what? I’m not interested in all that,’ people will not bother anymore. They’re going to do it a couple times, then they’re going to realise this feedback is going to a black hole. So what rhythm does your organisation support to encourage people to be open and honest and transparent? If we’re promoting these values as business or HR leaders, it has to be a mutual contract because a one-way street fails.

That’s why there are so many surveys that are flawed. Anybody that’s doing an annual survey, just forget it, in my opinion; it’s so out of date. Our surveying and feedback has become like the weather forecast; it’s constant and you can see when you’ve got some bad times coming and even for a place with a badge of Great Place to Work, we have some challenging times; this is not all roses in the garden. This is, at times, hard. It’s really hard.

Leadership for Everyone

Responsibility
Accountability
Working groups

My vision at FSP is that every single person in the organisation has the opportunity to lead on something. Some people are great people-people, aren’t they? You know, the people in your organisation that are really good. I hate the term ‘Manager’. We should ditch all of that. Is it not a ‘coach’? Is it a leader, a coach, a mentor, a supporter? A Manager would suggest ‘I’m going to manage you’. Not keen on that; each to their own, I suppose, but I think that’s old school, but I’ve got a vision. If everybody in our organisation could have the opportunity to lead either people or a capability, so our model supports both leadership for people, people coaches, and these are people that will know how to get the best out of others that will help them along a path.

Then there are people who are subject matter experts. So my best developer or my best technical architect is not necessarily the best manager of people. Whatever your business is, I’m sure you can think about those scenarios that the subject matter expert by default gets promoted to be the manager to leader of their area. Wrong! In our organisation moving forward, people can contribute to capabilities. If you are an expert technical person, you can lead for that: being the guy on mobile apps, you can lead for the company on photography, as a person that’s going to look after the work place. If you’re a people coach, let’s play you to your strengths.

“Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”
-Albert Einstein

How many times do people get put into roles that do not play to their strengths? Happens a lot. The concept for us of leadership for everybody is that we have many working groups for different things. We will define a person who’s got responsibilities for a working group or a capability. The website, for example, will have someone responsible, ultimately overseeing, provide support and some guidelines through accountability, and there will be a working group of people open to help and contribute towards that. So if you want to be involved in our website, come along! There’s a working group meeting on Tuesday. If you can’t come to our meeting, just put it on Yammer, our social network, about what you think.

There’s a lot of power. Henry refers to it as choosing your own manager and differentiating between capabilities and people. We see that as being very relevant; subject matter experts and capabilities, people leaders - separate.

So our seven lessons are:

7 Key Lessons Learnt

Great culture combined with high performance doesn’t need to be “either/or”
Communicate x50
Iterative and continuous change cycles
Great trust in your people and enable leadership
Hold accountability to Values
Celebrating and thanking is hugely powerful
Culture is not a destination, it is a way of life

Our seven lessons, great culture and high performance are not mutually exclusive. So with your senior leaders or if you are a senior leader the art or the genius I believe is in the and, not the or. You don’t need to convince your CEO to give up on profits, actually we’re going to be helping. It helped me to realize that if we invest in culture we’re are going to be more profitable as well as being able to sleep at night.

When we first started doing TINYpulse the most difficult thing to read was that everybody was saying we don’t get enough communication. How many people hear that? “We don’t know what is going on, don’t get enough updates,” and you’re thinking, “How can I communicate anymore?” So whatever communication you were doing before, you times it by whatever multiplier you possibly can - because whatever is going on in your brain, you think it’s more than what people are receiving. So my experience at FSP is that the more we can communicate and connect with people, the better. Don’t assume because you’re really ofay with the message that everybody else is because it won’t be. It’s a journey and it’s a shift, you’re asking people to change.

Short cycles for change. All of the things we’ve done, they haven't been massive programs, they've been lots of little things, probably done 50 things but they’ve all been bit-sized things. All the little scribbles that we’ve got on our pad, go and implement it.

Trust is the number on thing of leadership if people don’t trust me and our leadership team then everybody leaves.There’s a nice quote: ‘Trust is like the air; you breathe until it’s gone, you don’t realize how important it was.’ Something along those lines. It’s really important that you build a culture of trust and everybody lives by the values and those values can be held to account. In the last two years I’ve asked probably five people to leave because they don’t adhere to our values. They get warnings but hey if you’re going to screw people over, you have no place here.

Thanking. How many people thank enough? How does it feel when you thank somebody whether online or face to face. Makes you feel good. I wear my heart on my sleeve now and hopefully set an example for other people. We say thanks a lot. Never underestimate the power of thanks. Finally this is an ongoing thing for us. We’re maybe 30% done, maybe we’ll never be done. Always looking to be better is something that is always inherent in our mindset.

My final piece, which is a four-and-a-half minute video, is our alternative look. It involves 22 of our 40 staff members.

Today we’re back with Foundation SP. Since our last visit they have won first place in the small business category of the prestigious Great Places to Work Awards.

Alongside special awards for most trusted leadership and excellence in employee voice. In our previous visits we learnt about the values of the business and what there clients think of their work. This time we are curious to see what it’s like to be part of a recognised ‘great workplace’ and how that impacts business.

They place particular emphasis on asking employees about the experience working here.

“You, you, you and you. You all put strongly agree, you in the corner can you just put agrees please otherwise it might look a bit false.”

They also focus on and document key areas of the business that can affect the employee experience. FSP work hard to make their environment stand out.

“Yeah, my boss is okay. The chores are a bit much: the ironing, the chauffeur driving on the weekend… but it’s definitely less than it was.”

Throughout the business FSP showcase how they excel in recruiting:

“Next!”
“Okay impress me.”
(Pause)
“Awful get out.”
“Next! Impress me.”

Welcoming:

“Guys, this is Emma, she’s the new project manager. Do you want to say a few words?”
“Hi everyone! I’m Emma. I’m really really looking forward to—”
“You won’t last.”

Supporting:

“So as I said, in any team environment it’s all about trust. This is the most important exercise we’ll do today, so trust your partner and when I say go, fall backwards.”
*Phone rings*
“Go.”
“Ow!”

Sharing:

Man takes sandwich out of fringe.
Reads “Katy’s Sandwich”
Opens and takes a bite.
Face twist in disgust.
Spits it onto floor, tucks sandwich back into wrapping and leaves.

Recognition:

“Hey guys do you have a minute? Results have been so good that this weekend I’m gonna throw a party and I’d love for you guys to come along.
“Okay.”
“Brilliant thanks.”
Cuts to employees holding drinks dressed as waiters.

Supporting Leavers:

“Guys hopefully you’re all aware that it is my last day-”
“Get out!”
“Leave!”

So there we have it, FSP is clearly a very interesting business, they must be an excellent place place to work; they have the awards to prove it.

In 2017, FSP retained their title as winners of Great Place to Work.

Thank you very much, thank you.

Simon identifies two camps within workplaces. There are those that love people and culture and adopt a forward thinking approach, and there are those concerned purely with numbers, profit, revenue growth and annuity. The FSP ethos is to care about people and try to extract each individual’s unrealised potential. Alongside this, they prioritise empowerment, autonomy and freedom for each employee do their role. 

FSP is committed to providing great leadership, great employee experience and great client experience. This pledge is paying dividends – profits increased for £150k to £600k in the space of just three years, even though revenue had stopped being the number one concern. Simon defines great leaders as those who demonstrate purpose and vision, as well as make the company values visible to the entire organisation. It’s also about being authentic and approachable and therefore eschewing any trappings of superiority. 

FSP was named the UK’s Great Place to Work (Small Business category) in both 2017 and 2018, and it got there through determined effort. A major contributing factor was the comprehensive adoption of company values – values the entire personnel live by. 

No staff member misses a nativity, a sports day, or any other urgent situation, and this positively impacts business operations, says Simon. The employees operate like a family or a sports team, which means participating in high-performance collaboration. FSP employees don’t all need to be cut from the same cloth. They just need to value family, success, and passion.  

Simon has found staff roundtables to be really effective. Six to ten people that don’t typically work together will sit down, pick a big theme (e.g. client experience), and engage in critical discussion. The exercise produces great suggestions that can then gain consensus approval and be implemented. They also use the social network, Yammer, for receiving feedback, which is helpful for people who prefer online channels rather than face-to-face.

Simon’s leadership team honours its promise to review and take action on every piece of feedback. This lets staff know they’re being listened to and encourages them to keep submitting feedback. Ultimately, Simon values constant surveying, as it allows him to notice the bad times and challenges as they arise. They can then seek to remedy them while upholding their commitment to family, success, and passion.

What You Will Learn in This Video

  • The value of putting trust in your people and enabling leadership

  • Why you should set clear company values and hold everyone accountable to them

  • When employees operate like a family or a sports team, it leads to high-performance collaboration

  • When you review and and act on employee feedback, people feel more involved

  • Constant surveying allows you to notice bad times and challenges as they arise

Related resources

  • Click here to watch more videos from the 2017 Happy Workplaces conference

  • The Happy Manifesto by Henry Stewart – click here to get your free eBook, full of great ideas for creating a happy workplace

  • Happy Workplaces Have Lower Costs, a blog by Henry Stewart about how happy workplaces not only earn more, but have significantly lower costs

  • The Benefits of Happy Workplaces in the Public Sector, a blog by Henry Stewart about how happier, more engaged employees generate higher productivity and success in the public sector

  • Click here to watch a two-minute video of Henry explaining the financial evidence and academic research behind happy workplaces. 

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About Simon

Simon is the CEO and co-founder of Foundation SP (FSP), a forward thinking technology solutions provider and winner of the UK’s Great Place to Work (Small Business category). Prior to founding FSP, he gained considerable experience growing technology-focused businesses both within large and small organisations. Simon is passionate about forward-thinking organisational culture combined with high performance.

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