Balancing the practicalities of business with creating an engaged workforce is a tricky task at the best of times, but it’s one that Glenn Elliott has been doing for years. Founding Reward Gateway to bring companies and their employees closer together, his enthusiasm for growing company culture and fostering engagement has even driven him to write a book to teach others how to do the same. Across ten years and two businesses, Elliott’s expertise in knowing how to connect with your workforce has never been more important, especially given the ever-evolving role of leadership.
- Study more. Other people’s ideas can be vital in helping you to build upon your own. Read books, watch videos, and pull out quotes and ideas that you can then apply to your own business.
- Stick to your values. It’s important to know what your company’s values are, and how best to embody them in the way you work. Make sure that your employees know what they are and actively use them: in doing this you can create a more unified company culture.
- Be honest and open. It’s much more important to be honest about your opinions, and to speak up, then to be quiet for the sake of politeness. Being honest fosters trust between you and your workforce.
- Connect with your workforce. The role of leadership is changing. People want leaders who are easily accessible, helpful, and connected both to employees and to customers. Be communicative, be clear about what you expect from your employees, and take the time to listen to them.
“If you spend time focussing on your people and products, and making sure that they’re of a high enough quality, then the profits take care of themselves.”
Can you tell us a bit about your career journey so far? Can you also tell us about what you do and what Reward Gateway is?
Though it’s been twenty years since I last coded, I’m an engineer by trade: I started life in business with a ten year career at British Telecom, and learnt a lot about project management from that. I got frustrated with corporate, though, and left to set up a design management agency before realising that it wasn’t a business that could scale. I just about broke even doing that, but I wanted to do more: I wanted to build a product business using marketing and tech, and stop giving away our best ideas to clients!
As a result, I founded Reward Gateway ten years ago, of which I’m still the chief executive. It’s an HR business; we help companies to engage with their staff. In effect, we help them to attract, engage and retain talented people, and connect them to the company’s mission, goals and purpose. I spend most of my time developing our people strategy: we sell employee engagement as a technology, so clients should hold us to high standards in doing that ourselves, as well as our staff! Perhaps because of that, I spend very little time worrying about profits, because if you spend time focussing on your people and products, and making sure that they’re of a high enough quality, then the profits take care of themselves.
What are the skills you have acquired which help you in your day to day role?
I’ve never loved or worked harder at this job than I do now, because it’s constantly changing. Every time you learn something, it moves the bar higher. What I’ve learned recently is that books, and other learning resources, can be incredibly useful. Studying is completely different to watching, or reading: you need to actively engage with the text to learn from it. If it’s a TED Talk I’m watching, then I’ll get a transcript and go through it with a highlighter, pulling quotes out; suddenly, I’ll have a page of notes about how to apply these ideas to my own business. If you spend a few days with a handful of quotes and some business books or transcripts, you can end up transforming your business.
Reading is just as important. Two years ago I never read business books, but now I’m an avid reader: there’s great stuff out there. You can be wrestling with a problem for years, and then read a really insightful book that helps you solve it. What I’ve learned from these books is that it’s vital to prioritise honesty over harmony: people who don’t speak up can’t challenge and develop ideas, even if what they’re saying is sometimes hard to hear!
What would you include on your learning playlist?
I think that Patrick Lencioni’s books are great, especially this one. His writing style is wonderful: he writes a fictitious story, which he calls a fable, and writes a chapter afterward in which he sums up his points and explores how you can learn from it. His ethos of prioritising honesty over harmony is one I really agree with.
This book is all about how to be successful in business. The author, Angela Duckworth, found that the largest indicator of success was determination and hard work, rather than intelligence. The book’s got interviews from top businesspeople, case studies, and examples of how perseverance can pay off; it’s very interesting.
This video is absolutely hilarious, but it’s also very interesting. It’s all about employee engagement, and it’s one of the videos that I like to go through and make notes on so that I can improve my own business!
This talk is all about the importance of candour in the workplace, and how it can improve the trust between employee and employer, as well as creating an exciting and passionate workforce. It’s interesting, and direct: the speaker, Kim Scott, talks about a lot of things that I try myself to do at Reward Gateway.
There’s a stunning conference called the New Work Summit, which was run last year for the first time by the New York Times and is running again this year. It’s a CEO conference- and although it’s very expensive, it’s well worth the money. Everybody in the audience was a CEO and the speakers were people like Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, Marc Benioff, the founder of Sales Force, and even J.J Abrams. It was stunning, and extremely useful; I’m going again this year.
“Today, people are demanding leadership that adds value to the company, and to their work. They want visible, humble, accountable leadership; they want to know what leadership is doing and how they’re improving the company, and them.”
What are the most important traits for leaders and how can people go about developing them?
There’s definitely been a change in what people expect today from their leaders. Managers and leaders used to take a much less involved approach by allocating jobs to other people. The workforce looked up to you, you controlled them, to some extent, and you didn’t have to answer to them. Today, that’s all changing; we’ve now got a very millennial workforce who don’t take that approach at all, and think that those leaders are remote, distant, and not connecting enough. Today, people are demanding leadership that adds value to the company, and to their work. They want visible, humble, accountable leadership; they want to know what leadership is doing and how they’re improving the company, and them. They want a leader who is connected to their clients, and to their staff. Being a leader in a modern organisation is tough, and it’s all about communication.
Tell us about the CEO User Manual. What is it and why did you decide to create it?
During my time at the New Work Summit, I went to a session by the journalist who writes the Corner Office column of the New York Times, Adam Bryant, who often interviews CEOs. The session he did was about the CEO User Manual, and about how it could be used to streamline communication between people: when you take over a team or a company, your team will waste time getting to know you, trying to figure out what kind of leader you are and what you want from them. You can shortcut that completely by writing a document telling them who you are, what you value and how you work: that’s the CEO User Manual. You need to tell them in an honest, humble and authentic way, and not by using instructions. It’s incredibly helpful; a good user manual will reveal everything about yourself, including weaknesses and what you’re not good at. It gives your staff a currency, and a reference point. It’s also important to note that when you’re in a start-up, then the company will heavily reflect the founder’s values. As a result there’s a strong connection between my own user manual and what I want the company to be in terms of honesty, authenticity and trust.
“Your culture is about much more than your values; it’s about people’s behaviour whilst in the office, and as a leader you need to be helping people to improve themselves in terms of their behaviour and attitude.”
You talk about Company Culture being the competitive advantage. How could you summarise the RG Culture? How do you maintain your culture as you scale, particularly across 11 offices, and internationally?
I think that culture is the river that runs through an organisation: the river of expected behaviour. You can’t change or mandate it: how you communicate, how you lead, how you manage and how you train your managers to manage will all create a cultural output. Your culture is about much more than your values; it’s about people’s behaviour whilst in the office, and as a leader you need to be helping people to improve themselves in terms of their behaviour and attitude. When you get to office cultures, you definitely get some interesting problems, especially when it comes to values, and making sure that everybody embodies them. Nobody should get a pass on values because it will affect the culture of the company as a result.
When scaling your business, the thing that you need to accept is that company culture is a constantly evolving thing, which will change as the business grows. Patty McCord, who helped to create Netflix’s revolutionary culture, has an ethos that I love: when you’re a start-up, it’s more important to just get things done, and figure out what the time will buy. It takes years to work out what your culture is, and what really matters: I’ve only started to write my culture deck now about things that I feel the business should embody.
If employee engagement starts with great recruitment what are your tips for designing a great recruitment process?
One of the things that we do like to use in recruitment is a person’s Insights profile. Lots of people at Reward Gateway have one: it tells me how you like to communicate and how you like to be communicated with, which is extremely valuable. We get all of our final interviewees to do it, and then in the interviews we can talk about it. It not only lets us see what they’re like under pressure but it’s a way of seeing how that person works.
This approach also lets us build strategies around that person’s character: by looking at their Insights profile with our values in mind, we can see which of them they are going to struggle with, and then we can address it. Talking about it is doubly helpful: it makes the interviewee realise that our values aren’t optional, and it also means that we can try to give them some simple strategies to help them improve.
We’re also putting more emphasis on testing people and seeing if they really understand what our values mean. Using our culture book, which has our values in, we can hold more in-depth interviews, asking people to discuss a certain value, what it means, and when it would be hard. What we’re really doing is asking people whether they’re sure they want to work in this culture. We work in an extremely open environment: your performance statistics are open to everybody, and people will expect you to have an opinion on things, and to talk about it. In a sense, interviews are almost more about people deciding whether they want us than the other way around!
“Happiness is a really fortunate byproduct of engagement, but it’s not a goal. Happiness is personal to you, but engagement is when an individual understands, believes in, and backs the mission of the company.”
What have been your core insights from writing your book The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement and what are your top tips for engaging employees?
I think you’ve got to start by understanding what engagement is, and that people can often muddle or misunderstand engagement and happiness. Happiness is a really fortunate byproduct of engagement, but it’s not a goal. Happiness is personal to you, but engagement is when an individual understands, believes in, and backs the mission of the company.
In writing The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement, which is our strategic model for building engagement, I explain that its foundation lies in open and honest communication and transparency. If you don’t have that, then you can’t have trust, and if you don’t have trust then you don’t have engagement. At best, you’ll have engagement in the job role, but not in the company. It’s easier just to be plain: people can take the truth if you’re being honest, but it’s the lies, cover-ups and misinformation that they can’t deal with: that damages trust.
What else should we be asking you?
What I’m reading at the moment, which is Margaret Heffernan’s book Beyond Measure. It’s about social cohesion, and about the steps people can take to build a great workplace culture, often through making small changes. I’m reading it at the moment, and I always take a spare copy around with me!