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Building a great place to work

Building a great place to work
Published: August 7, 2019
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David Williams founded Impact in 1980 with nothing but a dream for developing people. Today, Impact operates 17 offices across the world and employs over 250 talented people. This year was the 12th in a row that Impact was awarded the title of a Great Place to Work in the UK in the medium-size category. What helps the company grow its culture from strength to strength? As part of our leadership quarter, we caught up with David to hear about his top seven leadership approaches to building a great place to work.

In order to answer this question, we need to turn leadership on its head and ask: What do our people think an organisation worth working for is? What makes a great place to work for them?

First and foremost, therefore, you need to know the people you work with. They need to be comfortable about expressing themselves in the workplace, whether that be asking questions, raising challenges or suggesting ideas. This type of leadership is focused on corralling people’s ideas and pursuing them in a way that enhances the business. Leadership should be about hearing every voice, inspiring people to speak up and creating the space in which they can collectively influence where the organisation is.

Cultivating a values-driven culture

In order to create this kind of environment, you need to ensure that your employees are good value matches for your business. However, at the same time, don’t look for people who are the same; at Impact I look for people who can add something that we don’t already have. We have a powerful organisational culture here that has been built over 40 years, so it is quite easy to shape people internally. The challenge is ensuring that bright, new and enthusiastic people who come into the business are not constrained by this culture or indeed by those who’ve been here for years. Cultures should evolve and change, just like people.

Future-focused people development

When recruiting I also want to know where people hope to be in five years’ time; I want to hear about their dreams and think about how they can pursue those within the business. People development and business development go hand in hand. Each individual in the organisation should feel that they have the opportunity to express themselves authentically, pursue their own goals in the context of work and feel truly fulfilled.

Endorsing autonomy

Great leaders make sure that their people are clear about where the handrails are, that they know what’s expected of them but also that they have large scope for freedom, creativity and innovation. It is the leader’s job to remove barriers and to cultivate an environment in which people can be their best selves, and in which they can embark on an ongoing process of positive change and development.

Organisation-wide feedback culture

In order to achieve this culture of continuous development, it is vital that feedback loops are present across the business. People should feel that feedback is a natural and ongoing process ­– just as in life we should strive to learn from all experiences. This is the culture that I try to promote at Impact, instead of using overly formal annual personal development reviews that tend to ignore much of what happens during the year. One of the biggest challenges I have faced as the organisation has grown has been maintaining this thriving feedback culture, as people tend to naturally shy away from it.

A global collaborative agency

Just as important as looking inward is looking outward and finding opportunities to work with and support others – collaboration is key. As a global business, we are wary of falling into the trap of becoming tribal and country-centric. As a result, we have adopted an agency approach. I find hierarchies and organisation charts to be hugely constrictive – people need space for creativity, agency and collaboration without looking upwards. By creating dynamic, cross-functional, cross-hierarchical and cross-cultural project teams, we can break down barriers and liberate brilliance. Watching the transformation to an agency approach at Impact has been truly amazing – it’s as if someone has taken the brakes off.

Giving back to the community

Finally, I would say that a great organisation is one that gives back. As a leader I am constantly scanning the horizon for opportunities that will help us to help others, and in so doing, will help us to create opportunities internally. We recently held our bi-annual Elders Tea Party here at Impact, and it was brilliant to see the project team not only delivering a wonderful event for their community, but also really coming together as a team and feeling inspired by their work. It is important to give your people opportunities to feel first-hand that their organisation is one worth working for.

Inspiring others

Externally, a great place to work should be looked upon as an inspiration. If this is the case, clients will work with you because they like what they see and how your people show up, and your people will feel like the work they’re doing is positive and meaningful. There must be a causal link. It’s no good being a great place to work if you’re not using that influence to help other organisations become better, and to become organisations worth working for in turn. 

Great leaders understand that all organisations are just groups of people working in service of other groups of people, and they therefore recognise the need to prioritise their people’s wellbeing, passions, creativity and development above all else. The result of this people-first approach is success, a thriving, colourful workplace culture, resilience, an engaged and happy workforce, and an organisation that is truly worth working for.

You can connect with David Williams on LinkedIn.